Monday, October 20, 2008


My first introduction to measure words was not in English class in school, but many years later, when I was in my 40s, and a friend and I decided on a lark to study Mandarin Chinese. My lessons lasted about 3 years in all, and while I was never what you’d call fluent, if you kept to certain familiar topics, I could struggle through. It was very enjoyable to get a peek into another culture and way of looking at the world, including the concept of measure words. Of course, the teacher explained, we use them in English, too, and she gave the example of “a piece of cake” – piece being the measure word. I was reminded of measure words last Saturday (Oct 18th) when I visited Nature Tales and Camera Trails, and read the post titled “A Cloud of Red-winged Blackbirds”. My first thought was that the word cloud was a poetic metaphor, but Ann went on to explain that “cloud” is the designated word for a grouping of blackbirds. That reminded me of something I’d looked up a few years ago when I came across an oddly titled book, A Murder of Crows. (and more recently a movie by the same title, but I don't know if they're related). Why would a group of crows be a murder? That seems excessively judgemental to me. I like crows. I realize they can be pests now and then, but I think murder is a bit unfair. Then I read that a group of crows will occasionally turn on a dying companion and kill him. Well, is that really crow murder, or more like crow euthanasia? Who can say, and I didn't want to get off topic, so I went online to look for some other measure words. I found quite a few lists available online. Between lists, some of their measure words were similar, some were different, but almost all of them were amusing.

Of course the big question we all want to know is: Who thinks this stuff up??? Some of them do seem to make a little sense, others seem oddly mismatched, still others are downright meshugge. Somebody out there is having a lot of fun! Here, let me show you:

An ostentation of peacocks (Hey big boy, are those your tailfeathers or are you just happy to see me?)
A shiver of sharks (now we know why they call it a wet suit…)
A bloat of hippos (but I’m gonna lose it after the holidays)
A tower of giraffes (say, would you pick me up a few dozen packs of throat lozenges when you’re out?)
A prickle of porcupines (hey, don’t back up, don’t back up…Owww! You backed up!)

A herd of elephants, but a pod of elephant seals
A bevy of roebucks (why not a Sears?)
A sloth of bears (don’t know if you can have a bear of sloths),

A rhumba of rattlesnakes (we thought you were supposed to hold really still…)
A bouquet of pheasants (what do you put on the card?)
A smack of jellyfish (ever try to smack one? Like nailing Jello to the wall)
A business of ferrets (what do you call a ferret breeder? Someone in the business of ferrets business)

And last but not least, a barrel of monkeys. Like you, I always pictured this saying as an old-fashioned wooden barrel, filled with squirming monkeys. I guess that would be fun. But now, NOW it makes sense. They don’t even have to be in a real barrel. They can be anywhere, doing all the fun things that unrestrained monkeys do. Okey doke.

Here’s a couple of sites if you want to pursue this further. Clever persons that you are, you’ve noticed that the measure word in that last sentence is “couple.” Well, after what we’ve seen, that’s just to cotton-pickin’ ordinary. I hereby change it to “mosh.” It’s the first word that popped into my head. Here’s a mosh of sites for you:

Photo of albino peacock from Shutterstock


Poetikat said...

Some of them seem apros pos (is that how you write that?), but there are definitely others that look odd together. I should think a "fan" of peacocks, but I get the bouquet - with all the colours and such.

Interestingly, one of my favourite British mystery authors has a book from a while back, entitled "An Unkindness of Ravens". I guess that's a version of "a murder of crows".


Deborah Godin said...

My point exactly! I happen to really really like Ravens, and if I had been naming a group of them, I would have picked a much nicer word than "unkindness" Maybe a "spectacle" or something like that.

me ann my camera said...

I love your post and it provides food for thought as well as gifts of humour as it does seem that someone (many) must have enjoyed the naming creation of these collective nouns; for it would be fun. So, I thought to create a few of my own relating to wildflowers. How about a den of Dandelions, a chime of Bluebells,or maybe a shade of Blue Violets, and perhaps a peak of Coneflowers?

Thanks for the mention and thanks for the post.

Robert V. Sobczak said...

Everyone's heard of "piece of cake" ... but have you ever heard the expression "walk in the cake?"

It's a compound of "walk in the park" and "cake walk" ... and as the name would imply, even funner than either!

Anonymous said...

Hey, I learned something today! Thanks.

Deborah Godin said...

@ann - Love these, especially a chime of bluebells! That one is going into my vocabulary for sure.

@robert - you're starting to remind me of that old Richard Harris song - "someone left the cake out in the rain..." Fun!

@fourwindshaiga - Cool!

Quiet Paths said...

Someone is having a lot fun and it's us! And you; what a great post, Deb. I always enjoy your instructional humor!

magiceye said...

very enjoyably informative!

kouji haiku said...

fascinating... :O

Sian said...

It is a murder of crows because of the phenomena of "the crow court". All the crows get into a big circle and one gets in the middle. This crow croaks and mutters, flaps its wings a bit and then stops. The other crows clack and flap for a bit and then the single crow is either allowed back into the circle or it is pecked to death on the spot.

I am not making this up, I have never seen it happen but I have heard from reliable sources that it does occur.

My favourite collective noun is a mischief of rats. I wonder what the collective noun for bloggers would be?

bobbie said...

This post is the greatest

This post is the greatest! Your parenthetical comments are so clever.

An Ostentation of Peacocks! That one really cracks me up.

I love Ann's ideas for wildflowers


smackofjellyfish said...

I'm fascinated by collective nouns as well! One of my all time favorites: a crash of rhinoceros.


Poetikat said...

A boggle of bloggers.