in came the doctor, in came the nurse…

I’m still plugging away at Anansi Boys, and it’s growing on me.  Perhaps it’s growing like shelf fungi, a growth Gaiman would appreciate.

There is a scene mid-way through the book that involves a really huge flock of birds.  The sly and savvy character Spider, while talking to his brother at the bustling intersection of Piccadilly Circus, is dive-bombed by a wall of pigeons, swallows, wrens, and other sundry flying things.  It’s all very Hitchcock.  I like imagining this flock of birds.  In particular, I like to imagine myself working in some cubicle in a London skyscraper only to see a swarm of seagulls and screech owls and sparrows rush by.  (Sure, screech owls are nocturnal.  Whatever.)  I would calmly set down my coffee mug and close the game of Solitaire I was playing — because really, if I’m working in a cubicle I’m probably not that into my job — and leave on a quest, pursuing the birds.

I can follow the white splatters!  A life of adventure, my friends!

This scene made me think about some of my favorite collective nouns.  In the words of my good friend Amy McCann, NERD ALERT! But who doesn’t love the quirky turn of language that dubbed a group of crows a murder?  Or a herd of sharks a shiver?  I mean a shiver of sharks.  I love this language.  I also liked the idea of an aerie of eagles — an obsolete usage, but an interesting one — until a too-hip-for-you clothing store gave the same title to their underpants line.

“Wouldn’t it be weird,” I mused to Danny that night over spaghetti, “if animals that didn’t normally travel in groups started traveling in groups?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, suppose you’re hanging out by the bayou and suddenly, like, fifty snakes went by.  I wonder what you would call a group of snakes?”  I promptly invented names for many different groups of animals.  A group of fifty snakes, I decided, is a slew.  A slew of snakes.  I like the sibilance.  And a collection of alligators is obviously a purse.  Get it?  Alligator purse?

Unfortunately, snakes and alligators must indeed hang out in groups sometimes, as collective nouns already exist for them.  A nest of snakes.  Yawn.  Not nearly as fun as a slew, which is in fact another name for a group of sharks.  But who would refer to a slew of sharks when you could call them a shiver?  An alligator group is a bask or a congregation.  The latter isn’t bad, I suppose.

My new favorite?  A wake of buzzards.  Very apropriate.

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4 thoughts on “in came the doctor, in came the nurse…

  1. Interesting post, and one that inspired additional googling. One of the more humorous findings is that both horses and seahorses travel in herds. A thundering herd of the aquatic type would make for a great visual gag, or at least a band name.

    Also if said purse of alligators were to pursue a flock of seagulls, I’d imagine the threatened birds would then have to run so far away.

    • You would think more bands would capitalize on unusual animal collective nouns. Why isn’t there a band called Wake of Buzzards? Death metal, perhaps?

  2. Anytime someone yells “nerd alert” I know that something delicious is on the way. A “congregation of alligators” will cause my mind to wander in naughty and all too apt ways one day when I’m sitting in church.

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