In a Word...Collective

For instance, why ‘a murder of crows’? It seems too harsh. Or ‘an unkindness of ravens’?

I still sleep soundly at night, even if some collective nouns intrigue me. Photograph: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP via Getty Images

It was at a book launch 12 years ago. The subject of the book, by former president Mary McAleese, was Catholic Church canon law. Looking around at those present, a well-known “troublesome priest” commented “all the heretics are here”.

It made me wonder what might be the collective noun for heretics. I never did find out, but suggested to myself that it really should be “a question of heretics”.

In attendance also were two Church of Ireland archbishops, retired Archbishop of Armagh Alan Harper and retired Archbishop of Dublin Walton Empey. Both heretics, of course, to all right-thinking Catholic. I asked Archbishop Empey, a favourite prelate of mine, what was the collective now for a group of archbishops.

Without a flicker of eyelid, he shot back “...a wisdom!”


He laughed. I laughed. I could not disagree for a moment that it was, indeed, a wholly accurate description of archbishops, wherever two or three are gathered. More recently this curiosity about collective nouns brought me to the edge of destruction, or so it felt.

It was at the Terenure synagogue in Dublin last May, following the appointment of Yoni Wieder as Chief Rabbi of Ireland, when speaker after speaker roundly condemned Ireland for its stance on the war in Gaza.

At the reception later, I saw former ministers for justice Charlie Flanagan and Alan Shatter in deepest conversation. Mr Shatter, too, had been severely critical of Ireland’s stance on Israel’s actions in Gaza.

With an innocence that bordered on the reckless, I wandered over to both and interjected with that overwhelming question “what is the collective noun for ministers for justice?”

Neither responded. Both looked at me with an unfamiliar, if stunned unity, of the `what-a-mad/daft-feckin-question-and-the-world-on-fire?’ variety. I withdrew, gracelessly, as they resumed their previous level of passionate intensity.

As with heretics, I still don’t know what the collective noun for Ministers for Justice is. But, I still sleep soundly at night, even if some collective nouns intrigue me. For instance, why “a murder of crows”? It seems too harsh. Or “an unkindness of ravens”?

But I do like “a crash of rhinoceroses”, “a gaggle of geese,” “a parliament of owls”, the lovely “enchantment of nightingales”, and oh-so-restrained “intrusion of cockroaches” but, in particular, “an ostentation of peacocks.”

Collective, from Latin collectivus, for `gather together’.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times