Australia has no shortage of iconic animals, but phrases to describe some species as a group are scarce.
You might be across the plural of platypus (platypuses not platypi), but do you know what to call a group of them?
Collective nouns for animals — a parliament of owls or a troop of monkeys — have a long history in the English language. They date to at least the 15th century. However, Australia, a country blessed with a variety of unique birds and animals, surprisingly does not have a rich selection of collective nouns.
To address this shortcoming, in 2004 my predecessor as Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at ANU, Dr Bruce Moore, put out a call to the community. Some of the colourful suggestions submitted were a shame of dingoes, a marauding of magpies, and a union of wallabies. But few of these have taken off.
Nevertheless, a smattering of collective nouns for Australian animals are in circulation. A mob of kangaroos is the one with the longest history, being first used to describe a group of kangaroos in 1846. It is the only collective noun included in the second edition of The Australian National Dictionary (2016). But some others seem to be gaining traction recently, perhaps helped along by the way these terms circulate and are repeated on the internet.
So, we now have a wisdom of wombats, a paddle of platypuses, and a crackle (or chattering) of cockatoos. These expressions play on both a feature of these animals, as well as alliteration, and they may be gaining some semi-official status. For example, a paddle of platypuses is mentioned as the collective noun for platypuses by the Australian Platypus Conservancy — although, as it points out, the platypus is in fact a solitary creature not to be found in collectives.
One animal that has long been lacking a collective noun is the koala. Why this is the case remains a mystery. Australian word enthusiast David Astle investigated this issue in October 2020 in his column in The Sydney Morning Herald. He was unable to find either an agreed-upon collective noun or a reason why there wasn’t one.
Maybe it is simply, like the platypus, we don’t really think about collectives of koalas (although we do talk about koala colonies). But he received a lot of reader suggestions, including a cuddle, a doze, a kip, a coma or a kerfuffle. These play on either the koala’s cuteness (‘cuddle’) or their tendency to be fairly sedentary (‘doze’, ‘kip’ and ‘coma’). A Reddit thread on the same topic suggested a g’day or a crikey, alluding to how the koala is an iconic Australian animal.
The quest for a collective noun for koalas continues.
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