Author(s): Samuel Fanous
What should we call the wild animals we spot from our windows? A surfeit of skunks? A dray of squirrels? A patient watch of wildlife enthusiasts might even catch sight of a skulk of foxes or a scavenging sloth of bears. The practice of inventing collective nouns for animals is an ancient pastime which derives from medieval hunts, but the list has been augmented in every age--and it remains an entertaining pastime today.A Barrel of Monkeys brings together more than one hundred collective nouns for animals, from a bloat of hippopotamuses to a caravan of camels, a tower of giraffes, and a leap of leopards. The rivalry between male rhinoceroses becomes especially apt when the rowdy ungulates are characterized as a crash of rhinos. An ambush of tigers is an apt characterization of the skillful hunters that silently stalk their prey. A blend of wordplay, puns, and alliteration, some of the terms collected here are now commonplace, like a pride of lions. Others aren't heard much these days, but many--like a dazzle of zebras or a prickle of porcupines--richly deserve a comeback. With charming illustrations by the eighteenth-century artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick, A Barrel of Monkeys is the perfect follow-up to A Conspiracy of Ravens, the Bodleian Library's book of bird words. Not even a crash of rhinos can stop readers from smiling at this second collection.
Susie Dent is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is the resident lexicographer on Channel 4's long-running game show, 'Countdown'.