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I discovered the other day that the collective noun for skunks is a surfeit. This surprised me at two levels. The first level was that I hadn’t heard the word ‘surfeit’ used in anger since the revelation that King John died of a surfeit of lampreys. What actually happened was he had 18 pints of mead, got the munchies, popped down to the local Lamprey’u’Like, and had three QuarterpounderLampreyMcSpecial Heartbusterburgers with extra fried mangolds, went large for a groat, and choked on his own vomit. Of course the Government of the day slapped a D Notice on this, some Plantagenet spin doctor coined the phrase ‘a surfeit of lampreys’, and history got retold.

The second level of wonderment was caused by the realisation that nobody else thinks that one skunk is more than enough; to use the term ‘surfeit’ for more than one is oxymoronic. I was once in a car in deepest Utah when we hit a skunk, and the resultant stench was so nauseating, so pervasive, and so persistent we had no option but to leave the offending vehicle in the parking lot outside the local 2Lazee2 line dancing club until some drunken redneck called Duane thieved it to drive home, failed to negotiate the turn into the trailer park, hit some propane tanks, and incinerated an area the size of a couple of city blocks.

So a surfeit of skunks is wrong. What else do we know?

A pride of lions

A pride of lions? A pride of lionesses maybe. They do all the hunting, bring in all the food, look after the extended families of offspring, and, for all I know, moan that the ceiling of the den needs painting and that tap’s been dripping for months.

Lions, on the other hand, have one claim to fame. They somehow conned people into naming them ‘kings of the jungle’, when in fact they live on the plains of the African savannah and the nearest they come to a jungle is the local Masai maize plantation. Apart from that they do naff all except loll around in the shade, get fed by their womenfolk, scratch their genitals, and look for all the world as if getting ready for another hard afternoon drinking beer and watching ProCelebrity wrestling on the television. Duane’s role model.

A murder of crows

Somewhat over the top unless you’re Tippi Hedron in The Birds, or Patrick Troughton in The Omen. Or were they ravens? Anyway, you don’t need a collective noun for crows. They’re solitary by nature. In Norfolk they say, ‘If you see a lot of crows, they’re probably rooks. If you see a rook on its own, it’s a crow.’ That’s Norfolk for you.

A sleuth of bears

Bears aren’t good detectives, even if Frank Cannon outweighed a grizzly and Andy Dalziel looks like one. No bear ever gave an ursine Dr Watson a hard time by saying, ‘Obviously we’re looking for a one legged limeburner from Solihull.’ Bears have two verbal expressions: ‘Hmm, let’s eat it,’ and ‘Hmm, I’ve been shot’. That’s it.

A dissimulation of birds

Not notorious liars, birds, unless you count peacocks, where all that showing off tells the peahens all they need to know about how well the males are endowed.

A rabble of butterflies

Butterflies are unlikely to strike fear into the hearts of old ladies in a town centre.

A horde of guinea pigs/gerbils

See ‘Rabble of butterflies’ above

But sometimes the language gets it right.

A business of ferrets

Ferrets are like estate agents; they’re sleek and voracious, even if they tend to be a bit more malodorous, at least in general. Also, once a ferret gets its teeth locked onto something it won’t let go for love nor money. ‘Business’ sounds right, except an estate agent will let go when the money appears.

A coalition of cheetahs

Odd one this since cheetahs are solitary hunters. Not to be trusted of course. In business a coalition is called a ‘cartel’, and look what Dallas’s cartel, headed by JR, did to Cliff Barnes. Cliff was the Texas equivalent of an antelope.

A gang of bison

Well hard. They’re thick but tough, just like a Millwall supporter. If one of those bulky ruminants ever calls out to you ‘Come on down if you think you’re hard enough’, don’t even think about it.

One interesting anomaly exists. There is no collective noun for koala bears. That’s because they’re so laid back they haven’t got the energy to form a protest group demanding their right to be known as a ‘cuddle’.

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