Flamingo congregation, Lake Nakuru, Kenya
Most of us know the easy ones – a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a pod of whales, a school of fish. And maybe you’re familiar with a “murder of crows”.
In Alaska, we have a sleuth or sloth of bears, a convocation, congregation or aerie of bald eagles, a pack of wolves, a band of coyotes, and a skulk of foxes. You can call a group of walruses a herd, pod or, my favorite, a huddle.
But what about a herd of moose? You won’t hear of a herd of meese. Two moose is still 2 moose. The same way 2 deer are not 2 deers. And more than one elk are simply elk.
“Believe it or not, when moose was first borrowed into English it received a regular plural form. The plural of moose was actually mooses! We can see this is the case when we consult a language corpus such as google’s Ngram viewer which let’s us look at instances of words in books through time, starting from 1800AD.
We can see that the word “mooses” was most popular in 1800. This falls in line with what we know about moose’s plural. The word was borrowed into English sometime around 1600AD. At that time, it received a regular plural form as well. We can imagine that data about word usage earlier than 1800AD would reflect this. This usage quickly faded over time, however. Especially into the 20th century. By the 1900s, the plural “mooses” was barely represented at all.” 1
But why aren’t all animals just called a “group”?
Turns out the reason is that many of the words for a group or colony of animals – officially called “venery”– came from British history. Collective nouns came from a variety of authors and texts dating back to the 1400s, but the most well known authoritative text was The Book of Saint Albans. Printed in 1486, it was written by several authors on the subjects of hunting, venery and heraldry. The section on hunting and venery was written by Dame Juliana Barnes (pronounced Berners), and contained lists of words that should be used to describe collective groups of animals all over the world.
Migrating caribou herd, Arctic Nat’l Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
These have stuck with us for centuries. We use these terms to impress friends, garner scientific credibility and add spice to presentations and conversations. Here are some other interesting plurals in the animal kingdom with their etymology, from from Miriam Webster:2
“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…
When on the ground, geese come in locks, 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… 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.
A group of swans, also once game birds, is a wedge when they’re in flight, likely because of the shape a group of swans takes in flight. And while we can call a group of swans a bevy, a herd, a game, or a flight, they can only be a bank when they’re on the ground.
…But what distinguishes a herd from a flock, or a swarm from a colony? And what do you call a group of fish? …They come in schools… 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. …herd tends to be used of cattle or other bovine animals, and flock tends to be used of sheep and goats. But and flock are also used of game animals in set phrases—a herd of deer; a flock of geese.
…Perhaps swarm is an easier collective noun to get one’s hands on. Its earliest uses were for great assemblies of bees on the wing…When applied to other creatures, swarm tends to be used of other insects, and particularly ones that fly—locusts, fireflies, cockroaches. But that’s not to say that swarm isn’t applied to other creatures: a swarm of eelswas once common enough to merit mention in our Unabridged Dictionary.
…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.
A Murder of Crows
So back to one of our best-known collective nouns –a murder of crows. This use of murder goes back to the 1400s. It is difficult to find a documented reason for the name though.
“Entymologists 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”.
Or could it be that crows sometimes have sex with dead crows?3
A crow copulates with a dead “mate” (Image ©Kaeli Swift)
Fans of collective nouns are familiar with an exaltation of larks, which was the title of a book by James Lipton on collective nouns. …the penchant for wordplay never goes out of style:
an unkindness of ravens
a murmuration of starlings
a charm of goldfinches
a tuxedo of penguins
a bask of crocodiles
a destruction of cats (no explanation necessary)
a troop of baboons (but a barrel of monkeys or band of gorillas)
a tower of giraffes
a parliament of owls
a cackle of hyenas
a smack of jellyfish
an ambush of tigers
a wisdom of wombats
And let’s not forget people. Surprisingly, The Book of Saint Albans also contains words for groups of people as well, such as a melody (for harpists) and poverty (for pipers)ibid. Here a few more memorable terms that, while they may conjure up believable images, have little to no consistency or explanation in real life:
a feast of brewers
a goring of butchers
an observance of hermits
a school of clerks
a doctrine of doctors
a tabernacle of bakers
a prudence of vicars
a state of princes
a congregation of people
a diligence of messengers
a discretion of priests
an execution of officers
an eloquence of lawyers
a drunkenship of cobblers
a proud showing of tailors
a skulk of thieves
and a personal favorite: an ingratitude of children
Whether humans or animals, the slate seems seems to be wide open to new and more creative ways to describe the peculiar characteristics of life forms when they get together. Speaking of life forms getting together, perhaps the most descriptive term I’ve ever heard came from the eloquent and brutally honest comedian George Carlin:
“I love people as individuals. I just don’t like them when they begin to clot”.
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Text & photos © Ron Levy, except where indicated
Ron Levy’s images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and does pro bono support for agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide. He has also guided hundreds of travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years.