28 February 2024

There is no collective noun for diplomats in common usage, although some candidates for the title have surfaced over the years. Here I note these, consider some other possibilities and come to no serious conclusion.

Collective nouns in common usage include ‘a den of thieves’ and ‘a flight of stairs’ but the best have an amusing dig at the group being referenced. Among these are ‘a cancellation of trains’, ‘an exaggeration of fishermen’ and ‘an incredulity of cuckolds’, as suggested by James Lane in this excellent piece. Another of which I’m particularly fond is ‘an absence of professors’, a justified prod at the notorious inclination of some senior academics to hide from students in order to avoid distraction from their research. The literary device of alliteration adds an attractive quality to a collective noun, as in ‘a shiver of sharks’.

What, then, of diplomats? Provoked by what she evidently believed to be ‘the vampiric “global diplomatic community”’ featured in the second series of the BBC’s ‘Putin vs the West’ and with an evident fondness for alliteration, Sunday Times columnist Camilla Long was recently moved to suggest that the best collective noun for this parasitic group might be a dithering, a drizzle or a droop of diplomats. But alliteration is not necessary and it is certainly not enough.

Peter Millet, then British Ambassador to Libya, suggested in an FCO blog in May 2012 that diplomats were not suited to a collective noun at all because ‘Ambassadors do not hunt in packs like a pride of lions. Nor do they sting like a swarm of bees.’ He added that ‘Serious gatherings of the leaders of diplomatic missions are rare’, so he was not surprised that his Google search had failed to turn up a collective noun for them. But plumbers don’t hunt in packs either – although they might sting you with a large bill – and this does not prevent us from allowing them an entertaining collective noun, ‘a flush of plumbers’. In any case, why do gatherings of heads of mission have to be ‘serious’ for them to enjoy (or suffer) their own collective noun? And what does ‘serious’ mean here anyway? There is nothing insignificant about diplomatic representation, as when over thirty ambassadors attended the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in 2022, at least some of whom constituted a ‘diplomatic enclave’. In addition, as far as I know, the diplomatic body in some capitals still gathers periodically to discuss matters of common interest, as do caucuses of the ambassadors of like-minded states within it. And diplomats are hardly unnoticeable en masse at embassy annual national day celebrations.

His own reservations notwithstanding, Peter Millet suggested ‘a cocktail of ambassadors’ as the most obvious collective noun for diplomats. He didn’t like it because it feeds ‘the erroneous perception of diplomats as pleasure-seeking, gin-and-tonic swilling, expense-account nonentities’. However, that hardly disqualifies it. In any case, there is a serious side to entertaining, and I would include Millet’s proposal on my list of contenders. Another high on my list is ‘excess of excellencies’, a suggestion reportedly made by the president of the Czech Republic which popped up in a comment by former British Ambassador at Prague, Linda Duffield, on Millet’s blog.

For my own part, I suggest the following additional candidates:

• a circumlocution of diplomats

• a deal of diplomats

• a protocol of diplomats

• an exasperation of diplomats

• a doggedness of diplomats

• a desperation of diplomats

I welcome alternative suggestions!