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At this stage of human history we have collected a lot of junk. Some is accidental, a bit like opening an old drawer and finding a bookmark you were given with that thriller you can’t read any longer. The other kind of junk is the result of bad habits and shows that people ought to clean things up more frequently.

Still typing at a QWERTY keyboard is a bit demodé but most people still do it. At The Times (London) clinging to old ways has found new life. To increase productivity management introduced typewriter sounds over loudspeakers. Either Times’ journalists are Pavlovian animals or they are so old that the sound of a typewriter actually means something in order for them to react. Imagine the productivity boost if they piped in the sounds of a pub to a newsroom.

It’s all in the past anyway. Most of that won’t mean much as quite soon most of won’t even have to type we’ll just talk to it; a bit like we talk to customer service and search engines. This situation will be ideal as it means machines will do everything for us and that leaves all that time, futurologists promised us fifty years ago to do creative things, such as read Paradise Lost or the Mahābhārat in Sanskrit.

That promise may be just too optimistic. Recent behavioral data suggests we’re more likely to slouch on the couch and do a marathon box set and streaming TV event.

This curious ramble of connections began with a book on the history of collective nouns. Collective nouns are mysterious and fun. A parliament of rooks, a murmuration of starlings, and an unkindness of ravens can each be traced back to the fifteenth century. Collective nouns are typically associated with groups of animals and birds. The reason for this lies in The Book of St Albans, printed in 1486 in three parts on the subjects of hawking, hunting, and heraldry. It’s the combination of unusual usage from an ancient past that gives collective nouns their allure. With the spread of supermarkets and chains stores hawking and hunting have tended to dwindle as common experience in everyday contemporary life. They have in my case and local government can be really petty about medieval hunting practices.

Language requires use to stay current. In the sixteenth century, The Book of St Albans was apparently reprinted many times, which kept the lists of various fauna in the public’s mind – the elite’s mind that is. A few hundred years later and many of the nouns are still in circulation today but let’s be honest, some of them are archaic; it’s been some time since I heard one used on a conference call.

The collective noun is therefore, in desperate need of modernizing. But if you search for updated collective nouns they all tend to the snide, smart and rude as if created by knowing, but not very alert, college students who use them as a way to accuse the world of all types of corruption.
I decided to work out some collective nouns that would be useful today.
•Microbes of software developers: not intended to be critical but to assign the biological affiliations that software plays in running everything.
•Rictus of real estate agents: just too many options with this group, but their smile is the perfect visual synecdoche.
•Gloat of hedge fund managers: they don’t as well as the index but that doesn’t stop them attracting the serious money.
•Capsule of domestic robots: every home will have their own wired angels dusting and polishing.
•Intrigue of hackers: this ought to be broken down into black and white hackers, and all the others in between, but this a top level domain use.
•Deficiency of species: because it’s getting to hard to count all the expired creatures.

The one collective I left untouched is for writers. Perhaps there ought to be an updated collective noun, though as people they tend to roam alone, but it hardly needs changing and it’s not as if writers get too much of it.

Guy Cranswick
21st September 2014