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Unkind Ravens And Murderous Crows: Collective Nouns In English

Have you ever wondered why fish swim in schools, stairs are measured in flights or worms come in cans? As with so many things in life, the French are to blame.

Illustrations by James Chapman


Have you ever wondered why fish swim in schools, stairs are measured in flights or worms come in cans? As with so many things in life, the French are to blame.

Let me back up a little. If languages were carpets, English would be a vast, cobbled-together patchwork. You would see Norse patterns, Saxon motifs, and, running through everything, the delicate threads of Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French.

In the centuries that followed the Norman invasion of 1066, the ruling class of England was French. The conquerors brought their culture, their customs and their language. This is why we have different words for living animals and their culinary equivalents – the aristocrats hardly knew what cows, pigs and sheep were, but were well acquainted with boeuf, porc and mouton. Animals rarely featured in the daily lives of the well-to-do, except when it came to hunting.


“Nay, nay, lad, it is indeed sad to see how little you know… No man of gentle birth would speak of a herd of swine; that is the peasant speech. If you hunt them, it is other.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Nigel: A Novel of the Hundred Years’ War


Courtly hunting in France and England was all the rage in the 14th and 15th centuries, with its own specialized vocabulary known as “terms of venery” (venery is an archaic word for hunting). A brave gentleman might hunt a pride of lions while a slightly less brave one might target a confusion of guinea fowl. A lady could come across a murmuration of starlings or a bellow of bullfinches on her morning ride. Terms of venery were the linguistic equivalent of silly hats: colourful, affected, fashionable, and very popular. And like most jargon, they were ripe for parody.

Enter The Book of Saint Albans in 1486. Among its compaynys of beestys and fowlys, keen-eyed observers noticed several new species: a Fightyng of beggars, a Gagle of women, a Sentence of Juges and an uncredibilite of Cocoldis (an incredulity of cuckolds – wouldn’t you be disbelieving if your better half were cheating on you?).

And so the language of courtly hunting brought to England by the French upper class gave birth to the extraordinary range of collective nouns that we know and love today. Some of the originals, chiefly those concerned with animals such as a murder of crows or a litter of puppies, are still in popular use. But the genre has expanded far beyond birds and beasts: think of a den of thieves, a flight of stairs, or a comedy of errors.



Doyens of daytime television may be surprised to learn that the definitive modern collection of terms of venery, An Exaltation of Larks, was written by none other than James Lipton, better known as the host of Inside the Actors Studio. He not only analyses the classics but suggests a few new ones, like a deal of agents or a book of Mormons.

The spirit of Lipton’s book is a good one: collective nouns (or terms of venery – let’s not get bogged down in the details, as a babble of linguists might do) are an art rather than a science. A prime example is a parliament of owls, created by CS Lewis in his Narnia series in the 1950s but now generally accepted in popular use.

You can be as playful as you like when it comes to making up terms of venery. Modern efforts such as a flush of plumbers or an exaggeration of fishermen are well worthy of the genre, not to mention a sneer of butlers or a shuffle of bureaucrats. Make your own at home if you like.



And there are many that aren’t in popular usage, which, frankly, should be. An intrusion of cockroaches? Quite. How about an illusion of magicians, an annoyance of neighbors, or a brace of dentists? Word lovers, go forth. This unique little pocket of the English language deserves to be celebrated.


Animals

a troubling of goldfish

a party of rainbow fish

a shiver of sharks

a rhumba of rattlesnakes

a charm of goldfinches

an unkindness of ravens

an ostentation of peacocks

a huddle of penguins

a journey of giraffes

a bloat of hippopotami

an ambush of tigers

a sneak of weasels


Miscellaneous

a fleet of lorries

a cancellation of trains

an unease of compromises

a nest of rumors

a galaxy of stars

a flight of yesterdays

a twinkling of todays

a promise of tomorrows

a flight of dragons


People

a scoop of journalists

a pity of prisoners

a disguising of tailors

a prudence of vicars

an eloquence of lawyers

a superfluity of nuns

an audit of bookkeepers

a stack of librarians

a number of mathematicians

a clique of photographers

a following of stalkers


Take the collective nouns quiz

Do you have all of these terms of venery committed to memory now? Great, then you’re ready for the collective nouns quiz!

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