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"Car Talk" Puzzler Letter

If you don't know how you got here, go here first.

The letter below is one of the two grand prize entries in the 1992 "Collective Nouns" contest on NPR's "Car Talk" radio show.  If you're unfamiliar with the show, there are a few references to in-jokes you won't get.

January 30, 1992

regarding: collective nouns

Dear Magliozzis:

First, a short discourse on the collective nouns you've offered as examples.  A shortage of jockeys and a lot of car dealers are different from, and better than, a shrug of mechanics.  "Shortage" and "lot" actually are collective nouns of a sort, whereas "shrug" is not.  Therefore, although a shrug of mechanics is humorous because of your many on-air references to the mechanic's shrug, it falls one level below (get it?) a shortage of jockeys.

If it's a gaggle of geese, then it must be a giggle of schoolgirls and a goggle of skin divers.  From there you get a keggle of bowlers, which is one of my best because it's actually a double pun first on kegling and second on the kegs of beer from which bowlers proverbially drink.  Following up on the beer theme you also get a brew of bowlers, from which you move on to a brew of witches, both of which are pretty weak since brew is not so obviously a collective noun, but a hopper of breweries is OK.  Returning to the alleys, I guess you'd also have a line of bowlers and a bowl of keglers.

The kitchen offers lots more examples because it contains so many containers, which is what a collective noun sort of is.  There's a pot of dopeheads, a pan of cameramen (or a pan of critics, I suppose), a spoonful of lovers, a cup of golfers, and a punchbowl of boxers, although a punchbowl of pugilists offers the additional appeal of alliteration that makes "gaggle of geese" so memorable.  While we're looking at kitchen stuff, there's the obvious dash of sprinters.  And, of course, we mustn't overlook a squirt of midgets.  (Get it, overlook a squirt of midgets? I'm not going to keep explaining these gratuitous puns, so be on the lookout if you want to get the full flavor of this letter.)

Returning to pugilism, we have a box of boxers, a bout of boxers, and a round of boxers.  Then we get a round of golfers, a round of robins, and a set of tennis balls.  None of these is really up to par, certainly not a match for "a lot of car dealers," but you may disagree.

Getting closer to your fair city, I'm sure you'll get lots of submissions of a clique of tappets, which offers a marvelous example of fortuitous onomatopoeia as well as the obvious references both to "Click and Clack" and to "Tappet Brothers."  And how about a claque of clairvoyants, which is damned good, in my humble opinion, not because of the alliteration but because clairvoyants are generally thought of as being claque-like in their manipulation of their victims.  If you think "claque" is too esoteric a word for most listeners to know, we can back down to a mere crock of clairvoyants, although crock is not so definitively a collective noun as is claque.

Back to the car theme, we have a trunk of cars, which of course reveals the less topical trunk of elephants, although I don't care much for either of these for some reason.  Do you like a truckful of dollies?  A dollyful of trucks?  Me neither.

If a "shortage of jockeys" is excellent (which it is) then an overage of senior citizens and an underage of children don't fall too short, do they?  And a garrison of Keillors surely leads one to think of a fort of hoods.  And the military theme brings us a wing of skeets.

A bag of hags?  Not a pretty sight.  How about a sack of bagboys?  Bag it.  A barrel of rifles?  Barrely adequate.  An upwelling of doctors?   Now we're getting better.  And if they can cure a bee sting, they're probably a hive of dermatologists.  (An associate in my office, my dear cousin Janice, before she saw this letter, independently came up with a rash of dermatologists, which is actually better still.)

And if you're looking for low medical humor, how about a pile of hemorrhoids?  And while we're down there, how about a pack of tampons?

If you can have a chest of drawers, why not a chest of bras or for that matter, a stack of breasts)?  Or a drawerful of shorts?  (Drawers, shorts, get it?)  And while we're romping around on bedroom furniture, what would you say to a bureau of clerks?  (You wouldn't say anything, because they'd all have signs in front of their windows that say it all, "Next window, please," until you get to the last one, where you'd only be met with a shrug.)

And speaking of clerks, here's one I'm especially proud of if only because it has so many elements going for it, although I admit it requires a bit of a mental stretch to appreciate all of them:

What do you call a bunch of incontinent postal clerks?

A stampede.

"Stampede" is a collective noun, of course, and I'm sure you get the stamp/postal part, and I'm pretty sure you get the part about how if they're incontinent then they're stampeding to the bathroom.  But did you pick up on the pronunciation of the last syllable of "stampede"?

And if you don't mind having to explain such homophones, how about a hoard of packrats?  And how about a pare of toenails?  I like these because they're short and cute yet not immediately obvious.  Here's another, from a pod of whales: a pod of claws.

Also short and cute and homophonic is a "pitcher" of painters, although presumably you'd have to work in the aspect about mispronouncing "picture," perhaps with a moronic southern accent: "Hyuk, hyuk, did y'all hear about that pitcher a' real, live painters down to the art fair?"

For another take on pitcher, how about a mound of pitchers?  A sack of infielders? ("George says he's gonna fire our entire mound of pitchers and most of our sack of infielders.")

If the collective noun for movie film is reel, what do you call a jail cell full of inebriates?  A reel of drunks.  (A tank of drunks would also be funny because of the term "tanked," except that we already have the term "drunk tank."   Too bad)  How about a wagonload of drunks?

If the collective noun for eggs is clutch, what do you call a bunch of women's handbags?  A clutch of purses.  And if you change women's to R.N.s' you get a feeble rhyme: a clutch of nurses' purses.

If you really want to get beyond what can quickly be explained on the air, how about an exxcesss of letters? ("X" and "S," C?)

If there's an exaltation of larks, why not an exultation of Christians?  If there's a pride of lions, why not a pride of egomaniacs?

And working off the lion angle and a streak of luck and a yellow streak down one's back and the cowardly lion of Oz, how about a streak of cowards?  Pretty weak, huh?   A streak of naked college students?  Nah, still too far out.

Let's get situated here.  What do you think of a rather of news anchors, in the mold of a rasher of bacon?  ("Let's get on with these auditions, darn it. Hurry up and bring in the next rather of news anchors.")

OK, then, how about a coffer of gold becoming a coffer of cigarettes?  Ahem?  Yeah, you're right, it's lame.  (Lame, see, as in gold lame.  I told you you have to keep your eyes open.)

Are you familiar enough with computers to recognize the connection in a batch of computers?  If you're MIT grads, you probably are.  If you're Italian MIT grads, as you probably are, you might especially appreciate a mass of Catholics.

And finally, how about a host of Tappet Brothers?

I've had fun thinking these up.  I hope you've had fun reading them.



P.S.  After I got this letter sealed up in an envelope, I thought of a few more, but I have to get back to work now, so I'll just list them without much explanation.

  • album of panhandlers (bum)

  • rain of bridles (rein)

  • raft of boats

  • sea of eyeballs (see)

  • list of unbalanced boats

  • heap of Dickens' villains (Uriah Heep)

  • warehouse of clothes (wear)

  • tray of triplets (trey)

  • knot of naysayers (not)

  • cell of salesmen (sell)

  • nest of IRAs (nest egg)

  • chukkar of shot putters (chuck)

  • ton of vats (tun)

  • inning of intercourse (in-out, in-out)

  • hamper of impediments

  • mess of grits -> mess of slobs or better yet mess of gobs (sailors are gobs, and military personnel eat mess, not meals)

  • collection of Walesas (Lech "leck" Walesa)

  • chukkar of princes (Prince Charles, aka "Chuck," who also happens to play polo!)

  • kiln of Vinnie Goombahs (kiln pronounced "kill," or slightly mispronounced as "killin'")

  • dynasty of truck stops ("die nasty," which is what you'd do if you often ate at greasy spoon truck stops)

  • storehouse of shopping malls (store)

  • confluence of virally infected inmates (You figure it out)

And, really truly finally, in honor of Carolus Linnaeus we have the following:

  • Kingdom of checkers

  • Phylum of manila folders

  • Class of taxonomists

  • Order of waitresses

  • Family of ?  (

  • Genus of Levis

  • Species of $20 bills


You can listen to a WAV file of the short or the long version of the radio broadcast on the subject.  The short version is just the last two minutes of the show that was broadcast on February 8, 1992, on NPR by WBUR-FM in Boston, mostly about me, me, me.  The long version, in higher-quality audio, at over 14 minutes includes all the references to the contest prior to that.




More information about the two-minute .wav file of the radio show is at the bottom of this page.

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