Continuing the three-part special on birds that started with A 400-Year-Old Book Made Entirely of Feathers, here is a post that deals with a truly thorny issue:
You’ve just spotted a bunch of birds. Excited, you rush to tell your friends. Which is great, until you try to explain what you saw and words fail you. Your face flushing, you end up with an embarrassed, “I saw birds. A bunch of them.”
Then, the wonky guy you never quite liked and who recently made a move on your girl (well, she doesn’t know it yet that she’s your girl, but it’s destiny, and you’re obviously made for each other, as she, too, likes, erm, pizza), well, this guy smirks and says something like, “oh, you saw a watch of nightingales?”
Thankfully, Atlas Obscura once again comes to the rescue, with some suggestions and the strange history behind the poetic nature of bird-group terminology.
As the lovely post points out, once you get beyond your standard flock or flight of pigeons, you start hitting exotic phrases like a “watch of nightingales” and a “pitying of turtledoves.”
These unusual collective nouns bestowed on animals, especially birds, are known as terms of venery, and date back to the hunting traditions and practices of the Middle Ages. Collective terms, which usually originated as a jokey or poetic description, came to be used for beasts of the land, birds in the sky, and even other humans. In the case of humans, medieval wordsmiths coined terms like a “sentence of judges” or a “doctrine of doctors.” When it came to birds and animals, though, the names became more abstract.
Enter St. Albans
While venereal terms (yes, that is the correct adjective) date to before the 15th century, it was the Book of St. Albans, published in 1486 that brought the terms into the cultural consciousness. The book, a guide to the various outdoorsman’s pastimes, was split into parts, focusing on hawking, hunting, heraldry, and in a later edition, fishing. As part of the section on hunting, there are listed 165 different venery terms, with an emphasis on birds. The terms were not likely used in practical application, but rather as a showy bit of language, employed by gentlemen looking to show off their erudition.
The Book of St. Albans proved hugely popular in its day. By the 16th century, the book was reprinted so many times that its reproduction numbers were (likely sarcastically) compared to that of the Bible. Thanks to the popularity of this volume, terms like “a shrewdness of apes,” “an exaltation of larks,” “a flamboyance of flamingos” and even “a gaggle of geese,” earned a place in the English lexicon. These medieval constructions survived down the centuries both through popular usage and through the works of historians and scholars.
Today the most well-known modern work on the subject is a thin volume by James Lipton, of Inside The Actors Studio fame. Titled An Exaltation of Larks, the book is a collection of venery terms collected from medieval sources, and some he just made up himself. The true beauty of venery terms, which Lipton takes advantage of, is that they can be created by anyone with a poetic spirit and a will to name a bunch of animals. Venereal terms are not based in scientific dogma, but imaginative wordplay, and are only granted validity by their survival.
Venery Terms for Birds
Venery terms for all sorts of animals lasted through the centuries (a pride of lions, a pod of whales), but it is birds in particular that have retained a pronounced air of poetry surrounding their collective nouns. Here are some of the better-known ones:
- a murder of crows
- a parliament of owls
- a wedge of swans.
- a murmuration of starlings
- a deceit of lapwings
- a convocation of eagles
- an unkindness of ravens
- a pitying of turtledoves
- an ostentation of peacocks
- a pandemonium of parrots
- a huddle of penguins
- a mob of emus
- a rafter of turkeys
- a watch of nightingales
Since there is no authority regarding the creation of these collective nouns, the list of possibilities for bird group names is literally endless. Feel free to come up with your own. As a starting point, Atlas Obscura suggests “an annoyance of pigeons”; “a burden of albatrosses”; and “an omen of vultures.”
More fowl fun to follow!
a small batch of hipsters.
Fascinating post, Nicholas!
Thank you, Michelle 🙂
The beauty of words. Poetry indeed! 🙂
Even better, I see it as a free-for-all poetry! Now go make up your own expressions 😀
Fascinating, Nicholas. I re-posted on my blog. The possibilities for book titles is endless!
Thank you so much! Yes, it’s nice to know that we officially have permission to play around with these 🙂
I made up “a blessing of bushtits,” a few years ago when I noticed numbers of these little grey birds flitting through the garden. They always hang out in groups, and twice I’ve found their nests in shrubs — they look like old socks made of bits of grass, moss, lichens and (so I’ve read) spider silk.
That is so sweet! I love the blessing of bushtits 🙂
I’ve always loved these, Nicholas, from the first time I heard “a murder of crows.” They’re so magical and imaginative, they feed right into the fantasy writer’s heart. 🙂
And the best part is, you can now create your own! 🙂
I always thought that a ‘murder’ of crows was a real misnomer. As they are carrion eaters mostly, I have never thought of them as murderers. Then again, what do I know about birds? (Not a lot…)
Best wishes, Pete.
Lol – probably more than I do, actually 😀
Thank you, Mary! Glad to hear it 🙂
I like coming up with collective nouns for modern jobs, such as an excel of analysts (my job) or a configuration of IT professionals… 🙂
Lol – brilliant 😀
Humans are such silly things. While not birds, I think I heard the term ‘congress of baboons’ a few times. Only over the last few years. It’s amazing how people get touchy about these terms also. As if the animals will show up at your door if you use the wrong one.
Ha ha – I wish I were a comic book artist to draw that. “Excuse me sir, we are baboons and we noticed that you incorrectly use the term ‘congress.’ Please refrain from such mistakes in the future. Here’s our lawyer’s card, if you have any further questions.”
There has got to be something out there like that. Need to find an artist to do it. Wonder what animal their lawyer would be.
For some weird reason, they tend to be portrayed as weasels in comic art.
I never noticed that. Makes sense though.
I hope your wife doesn’t hear you say that 🙂
She’s a legal assistant. Well, she was. Who knows what the next job will be at this point.
As ever ,enlightening, permissive, erudite Nicholas. And I thought you were probably up all night! Perhaps this is how you distract yourself and make meaning from the unavoidable? An ‘attention of night hawk?’
Lol – more like an absent-minded owl, but thanks 😀
Actually, these posts had been scheduled well in advance. Just prior to the birth date, I had scheduled enough posts to last me to the end of January. That way, I don’t have to disappear while I dive into soiled nappies and water bottles 🙂
Wonderful! I love to know where words come from and why they mean what they do. Etymology at its best! Abbot and Costello? Perfect! Who’s on first?
You do Abbot, Ernesto can be Costello. I’ll do the baffled cows.
Sounds like fun!
Entertaining and informative read over my croissant and coffee
You do know you’re the only reason that I schedule all my posts for 8 am, right? I had considered scheduling them for 6 pm, so that I catch the US crowd, but I couldn’t do that to you… 🙂
I am so pleased you are working around my morning coffee 🙂
Great one Nick. These venery terms used to come up on trivia web sites back in the 90’s (gulp).
Reminds of an old Abbott & Costello routine…
Costello: Look at that bunch of cows!
Abbott: Not a bunch…a herd.
Costello: Heard of what?
Abbott: Herd of cows.
Costello: Of course I’ve heard of cows.
Abbott: No! A cow herd.
Costello: What do I care what the cow heard. Probably doesn’t speak English anyway.
Gotta love it! 🙂
Ha ha – I hadn’t *herd* that one before 😀