But what distinguishes a herd from a flock, or a swarm from a colony? And what do you call a group of fish? The fish—true fish, at any rate—are the easiest to classify. They come in schools.
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But what distinguishes a herd from a flock, or a swarm from a colony? And what do you call a group of fish? The fish—true fish, at any rate—are the easiest to classify.
They come in schools. No, not that school : this particular word comes from a Middle Dutch word that refers to a group of animals together. Fish also come in shoals , which comes from an Old English word that means "multitudes. But once we get out of the sea, the rules for what to generically call groups of creatures get more complicated.
Both herd and flock are used of animals and usually farm animals that are domesticated and kept under the care of a person. In this particular use, herd tends to be used of cattle or other bovine animals, and flock tends to be used of sheep and goats.
But herd and flock are also used of game animals in set phrases—a herd of deer; a flock of geese. Historically, a herd was any group of animals traveling or eating together, as was a flock, and this jumble continued on into the modern era.
Herd, a word most people associate with deer, horses, or cattle, has been used of porpoises, seals, and birds, and flock, a word we now associate with sheep and birds, has been used of elephants, lions, camels, and pigs. Its earliest uses were for great assemblies of bees on the wing, and indeed swarm of bees is still common.
When applied to other creatures, swarm tends to be used of other insects, and particularly ones that fly—locusts, fireflies, cockroaches. Colony tends to be used of specific populations of animals that are settled in a place—a colony of rabbits or bees, for instance. But not all social animals come in colonies. Dogs come in packs; elephants in herds; people in a variety of conglomerations. In the end, there is no cut-and-dried rule for how to refer to a particular group of creatures.
And this may be why we love the more fanciful collective nouns so much. A Murder of Crows One of our best-known and easily meme-able collective nouns is a murder of crows. Unlike many collective nouns, this sense of murder even has enough evidence in print to merit entry into our dictionaries. This use of murder goes back to the s.
There was, at that time, something of a fad for "terms of venery ," or names for groups of game animals. Treatises on hunting and hawking were very popular, and whenever the subject appeared in the 15th century, so too did lists of venery terms. Crows have been grouped in murders since the late s—though no reason for the name was given.
Etymologists suggest that the association of crows and ravens with death might have led to the name, but the writer of the manuscript where a murder of crows first appeared gives no hint.
Though there was a rage for terms of venery, most of them fell out of use in the 16th century. Murder of crows was one of them—but it was rediscovered in the early 20th century. Authors then posited that the crowd of crows was called a murder because of the tremendous noise they make.
An Exaltation of Larks Fans of collective nouns are familiar with an exaltation of larks, which was the title of a book by James Lipton on collective nouns. But this particular collective noun goes back to the 15th century, and comes from one of the most famous books on collective nouns in print. The Book of Saint Albans, originally printed in , was a collection of advice and information on hawking, hunting, and heraldry. It was the first book in England to be printed in more than two colors six were used in the heraldry section , and authorship of the sections on hunting and hawking have been attributed to Dame Juliana Barnes more often called Berners , the prioress of an abbey near St.
Albans, Hertfordshire. Berners was likely brought up at court and evidently retained a taste for hawking and hunting after she took orders. The Book of Saint Albans contains a list of many terms of venery at the end of the treatise on hunting, and while many of them are so familiar as to be unremarkable—a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions—some are rather fanciful.
Here are some other flights of fancy from The Book of Saint Albans: an unkindness of ravens a murmuration of starlings a charm of goldfinches Sometimes the collective noun applied to a particular bird was a marker of rank. Cast was used to mark technique: Berners notes that one should always cast a hawk at prey, and never let it fly. And a leash of hawks was modeled on the name for a group of hunting greyhounds, another animal favored by the gentry. Birds that were unremarkable or were hunting birds used by lower classes were grouped in flights.
A cast of hawks denoted nobility; a flight of goshawks indicated the hawks in question were owned by a yeoman. Geese, Ducks, Swans, and Their Location One of the surprising things about the lists of terms of venery is that they sometimes give different names to the same animal depending upon where they are.
Geese seem to be the birds that get the most differentiation. When on the ground, geese come in flocks , like many birds, and in gaggles , a word which is specific to geese and comes from the Middle English verb gagelyn, which means "to cackle" and is likely imitative in origin.
A skein of geese is a group of geese in flight—and yes, that skein is related to the yarn skein. Ducks on the water are called a paddling for obvious reasons and a raft, as they float together like a raft.
There are no specific terms for ducks on the ground or in the air, though another collective noun for groups of ducks we see in print is badelyng—a corruption of paddling.
The inclusion of these fanciful names for groups of people hints that perhaps collective nouns are founded as much in whimsy as in fact. A quick survey of the existing literature of the era shows that collective nouns like melody for harpists and poverty for pipers were only in use in these fanciful lists.
And this remains a problem, lexicographically speaking. How often does one need to refer, for instance, to a group of brewers or butchers? And collective nouns for hermits seem to be magnificently missing the point. By all means, resurrect them and use them as much as possible.
But pity the poor pipers, perhaps, and choose a less stingy noun than poverty.
An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition
Its a linguistic treatise about the names for groups: groups of various animals, or groups of people of various professions or social circles, or groups of abstract concepts. A Comedy of Errors is in this book yes, its a group name, created by Shakespeare, not the genre name. It includes over terms, some more established than others. Lipton writes about his sources for this book, some of them from Loved this book. Lipton writes about his sources for this book, some of them from 15th century, and its instant, unexpected by the author, success.
A Drudge of Lexicographers Presents: Collective Nouns
Random page Precision of Lexicographers People often write in about the conventional terms for groups of animals and people, especially birds, such as parliament of rooks or murder of crows. Many of these, including tiding of magpies, murmuration of starlings, unkindness of ravens, and exaltation of larks, are poetic inventions that one can trace back to the fifteenth century. The first collection in English is The Book of St Albans of , an early printed work from a small press at St Albans that used worn-out type that had been discarded by William Caxton. The book is in three parts, on hawking, hunting and heraldry, and is almost certainly a compilation of earlier works, probably written originally in French. The part on hunting is inscribed with the name of Dame Juliana Barnes, who is traditionally supposed to have been prioress of the nunnery of Sopwell near St Albans, though almost nothing is known about her and her name might have been Berners, or Bernes. What is certain is that the book became hugely popular. It was reprinted at Westminster the same year by the famous Wynkyn de Worde.
Precision of Lexicographers