We’ve all heard of a “murder of crows,” but do you know about a bloat of hippopotamuses, or a smack of jellyfish? What about a tuxedo of penguins, a tower of giraffes and a parliament of owls?
Turns out there’s a whole list of whimsical names for groups of animals (actually groups of humans too, but let’s stick to animals) that most of us have never heard of, let alone used. They aren’t in biology books and don’t appear to have any scientific basis. Instead, the names seem to reflect someone’s sense of humor, whoever that someone may be. And it’s an open question as to whether or not they get used for anything beyond a fun point of trivia or a crossword puzzle clue.
I first heard of a few of the more outlandish of these terms last week from friends of mine who’d discovered them while searching for entertainment during a long road trip. None of us could explain who came up the labels or decided they were a thing. Most of the names for the groupings seemed too poetic and silly to be real, which left all of us wanting to know more. So when I returned home, I turned to my trusty information tool, Google, to find out the history of these terms.
Turns out naming animal groupings dates back to the 14th century and started out as “terms of venery” (at least according to what I found on the internet). Now, if you are like me, you probably don’t know what venery means, so I looked it up in a dictionary. The first definition that came up — “the gratification of sexual desire” — was not what I expected. But I scrolled down to more archaic uses of the word and discovered that venery also means “the practice or sport of hunting” and that it was hunters in the Middle Ages who first came up with cute names for groupings of animals. The earliest compilation of such terms dates back to 1486’s Book (or Boke) of St. Albans, a collection of three essays on hunting attributed to Juliana Berners, a nun who also, apparently, had a thing for the sporting life.
Modern scholars think terms of venery tend to have a pompous, stuffy tone because of their origins in the world of Medieval hunting. After all, only the nobility had access to most forms of hunting in those days, at least in England. Everyone else was a poacher. Blogger Peter Lewis wrote in 2013, “In the course of the 14th century, it became a courtly fashion to extend the vocabulary, and by the 15th century, this tendency had reached exaggerated proportions.” In other words, people who wanted to sound smart used big words, even if they had to make up those words.
Terms of venery, therefore, were always meant to be a kind of inside joke that only the erudite and wealthy would be able to understand or use correctly. Which means, as Lewis points out, it’s rather amazing that some of those early labels actually stuck around and are now commonly used in modern English. These long-lasting labels include flock of sheep, gaggle of geese, murmuration of starlings and school of fish (although here “school” is thought to come from the Old English word scolu, which means multitude and refers to the number of fish rather than the idea that their orderly formations resembled students lined up in a classroom).
The whimsical nature of the terms of venery has, according to Lewis, roots in the practice of “kenning,” which is a form of word compounding used in Old English, Old Norse and Germanic poetry. When kenning, a poet creates mixed imagery or makes up new compound words to describe an object or act in indirect, imaginative or enigmatic ways. We may not recognize the term kenning, but it’s a practice that continues to be widely used today. Just think about surfing the web, rug rats, Bible belt, dirtbags, ankle biter, four-eyes, motormouth, keep your eyes peeled or tree hugger. We all know exactly what we mean when we use these expressions, but who thought of them first? How did they become part of common parlance? And, what will people think of them in 1,000 or more years? Will they get the joke and understand what we are talking about? Or will the expressions seem crazy, archaic and impossible to interpret?
Some of the medieval terms in the Book of St. Albans make total sense to us today. Others not so much. For example, the author talks about a leash of hawks, which refers to three hawks kept in a tower to be used for hunting by the nobility, and you always “cast” your hawks rather than just let them fly. To make matters even more confusing, there are often several different names for groupings of the same animals. So, geese are a gaggle on land but a skein while flying, and swans may be a wedge, a bevy, a herd, a game or a flight in the air, but they are called a bank when they are on the ground.
Many of the names for grouping for animals that live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are well known and commonly used by all of us, such as a herd of deer, moose or bison, and flocks of many species of birds (although some get their own special term, such as an unkindness of ravens). Others terms are pretty obscure: a sleuth of bears, a colony of beavers, a nursery of raccoons and a dray of squirrels. Some people guess the sleuth of bears is actually meant to be sloth and may refer to the fact that bears hibernate or appear to move slowly, although that seems like a stretch to me. A dray of turtles, on the other hand kind of works for me. After all, a dray is a heavy cart used for delivering loads, which a turtle shell could be said to resemble. Of course, in the end, does any of it matter? No. But is it fun to think about? I think so.
Still, I wonder how we ended up with some of our more colorful terms of venery? Furthermore, what gives anyone the right to say what they should be? It’s not like you publish your findings in some scientific journal to garner approval and acceptance. Could someone just come up with a list online and create a whole new lexicon? Maybe. All I know is, that next time I need a bit of trivia, terms of venery are going to be my go-to fun fact.