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!