Collective Nouns for Groups of Animals in English
They say the English are an eccentric people and maybe the proof is in the English language; because if there was ever an “unconventional and slightly strange” language, surely it’s English?! Let me offer you an example: collective nouns for animals.
Most languages have words that indicate a group of animals and English is no different.
They have a shoal of fish, a flock of birds, a herd of cattle and so on.
So far, so normal. These words – “shoal”, “flock”, “herd” – basically just mean a group or a collection of that type of animal. They don’t tend to have other meanings.
But…, when it comes to specific species and group of animals, we get a little more creative.
How about apride of lions? Or a pod of dolphins? Maybe a dray of squirrels? And if you like primates, you’d probably enjoy a shrewdness of apes.
Surely, these are odd words to use?! They all have more common meanings.
Pride is an emotion (and a deadly sin). A dray is a kind of truck or wagon used for transporting goods (especially beer). A pod is something you find peas in. Shrewdness is a characteristic of a clever or wise person.
When did it start?
So, when did English speakers start taking words from different parts of English and applying them to groups of animals?
It all started in the Middle Ages.
Hunting was a popular pastime or sport and it became fashionable to use words and terms that were specific to hunting activities; in other words, jargon!
Just like computer nerds like to use language that the rest of us don’t understand, it was the same with hunting in 14th and 15thcentury England. Part of that fashion was to have specific words for groups of animals; and then, because it was trendy, people got carried away and starting inventing collective nouns for animals no-one would want to hunt.
And that’s how it started… with books suggesting new names for groups of new animals: a caravan of camels, a skein of ducks, a business of flies, a murmuration of starlings, an exaltation of larks, etc.
Of course, a lot of these aren’t commonly used these days but they still exist in the language.
Perhaps the family of animals that seems to have attracted the most bizarre collective nouns is the Corvidae family of birds; the crows and their relatives…
Examples of groups of animals
A group of jackdaws is a train or a clattering; presumably because of the raucous sound they make.
When jays get together, they’re called a scold and if you’ve ever heard them screeching, you won’t need to ask why.
As for ravens, beloved of Edgar Allen Poe, in a group they’re called an unkindness; apparently, because an old folk tale says they push their young out of the nest.
The most blood-curdling collective noun has been given to the crows; when they gather, it’s called a murder! Probably because in earlier times, they were associated with death, battle, and graveyards. Then again, it might just be connected to the noise they make: «to yell bloody murder» is a colloquial phrase for shouting loudly and a group of crows cawing together can be pretty noisy.
Rooks are a member of the Corvidae family that tend to gather in communities called rookeries, with dozens of nests in the same group of trees. Maybe that’s why they’re called a parliament? (It’s probably poking fun at politicians too).
Or the name might be connected to their habit of gathering together like an audience while one of their numbers stand in the centre of the crowd and ‘speaks’. At the end of the ‘speech’, they either all fly away or all join together and peck the ‘speaker’ to death. Another word for a collection of rooks is a storytelling.
Finally, magpies are believed to be able to predict the future. A group of them is called a tiding; as in, they bring you good (or bad) tidings or news.
In English folklore, there’s a rhyme that tells you what to expect in your future, depending on how many magpies you see together.
The most common version is:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
There are different traditional versions across the British Isles and it even varies from county to county.
Sometimes, three more lines are added:
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for the love you must not miss.
So, weird names for groups of animals…, just another entertaining and eccentric element of the English language.
Some of them are colourful, some are poetic, some are just strange.
Lee una versión de este post en español: «Nombres raros para grupos de animales en inglés»