The revealing side of collective nouns

17th March 2006 at 00:00
A few months ago, I had the rather unnerving experience of sharing a platform with two other people who were also called Walter. This prompted the chairman to suggest that a suitable collective noun might be "a welter of Walters". His suggestion was more acceptable than an alternative that springs to mind, also bisyllabic and beginning with a "w" and ending with an "r".

There will be no prizes for guessing what I have in mind as it is a term of abuse heard daily in school playgrounds (and occasionally in staffrooms).

Devising good collective nouns calls for a sharp wit. When he was a student leader in Edinburgh, in dispute with senior officers of the university, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is reputed to have proposed that a suitable collective noun for a group of university principals would be "a lack". I suspect many academics today would concur, given the way in which the current round of salary negotiations has been conducted.

My sources also tell me that Bill Gatherer, former chief educational adviser to Lothian Region, once made a highly entertaining speech which included a list of collective nouns for ladies of the night. These ranged from "a jam of tarts" to "an anthology of pros(e)". The sheer unexpectedness of the latter is part of its appeal.

There is plenty of scope within education to have fun with collective nouns. I tend to favour examples which employ alliteration, but that is not an essential requirement. Teachers may have occasions when they will be tempted to refer to "a pestilence of pupils". Opportunities to employ more positive terms - such as paragon, panacea or paradise - may be somewhat fewer.

When it comes to headteachers, there are intriguing possibilities. "A harangue of heidies" has a certain ring to it. Or, in view of the multiple realities which they are now expected to inhabit, "an hallucination" might convey something of the surreal nature of their existence.

Members of the inspectorate can hardly expect complimentary terms to be applied to them. "An inquisition of inspectors" captures the feelings of many teachers when they find themselves on the receiving end of their "supportive" and - to use the currently favoured term - "proportionate"


If, in response, HMIs are inclined to think of themselves as victims, they should console themselves with the thought that perceptions could be even less flattering. "An infestation of inspectors" would presumably be unwelcome. When combined with "a pestilence of pupils", the case for sending for Rentokil becomes compelling.

Officials within the Scottish Executive and local government should not escape attention. "A circumlocution of civil servants" conveys their fondness for linguistic obscurantism and "a bumf of bureaucrats" draws attention to the avalanche of paperwork they generate. Another possibility is "a buck-pass of bureaucrats".

Lest it seems that I am castigating everyone but myself, I am happy to acknowledge that professors should receive the same treatment. It would not be hard to find examples to justify the description "a pomposity of professors" and, given the prevalence of academic bitching, "a pique" might also be judged appropriate.

I may as well insult the editor along with everyone else. How about "a jamboree of journalists", alluding to their alleged fondness for liquid lunches and expense accounts?

Now that Gordon Brown has made the transition from student rebel to pillar of the political establishment, I wonder if he would appreciate being on the receiving end of a similar barb to the one he directed at university principals. The track record of those occupying 11 Downing Street might merit the collective description "a cheat of chancellors".

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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