Parliament of owls, superfluity of nuns : bizarre history of collective nouns

Before we had widespread collective nouns for animal groups, we had 7 names for animal droppings.

These include the wonderful expressions : “the wagging” (the fox) , “the wardrobe” (badger) and “the Drit” (merely “stinking beasts”).

The Venerie of Twiti (early 14th century) differentiates a miserly three types of animal droppings. Gaston Phoebus (14th century) had a more respectable score with five terms for animal droppings. The Master of Game proved it truly was by extending the lexicon for animal leavings to 7.

If “the wardrobe” seems too pompous for poop, you could always try dropping these words into conversation : fewmets, fewmishing, crotels, crotisings, freyn, fuants, billetings, and spraits.

droppings

The book was written in the early 15th century by Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York and is probably the oldest English hunting book.

The work was reprinted in 1904, with several additions, including a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States at the time!

The compaynys of beestys and fowlys

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At the beginning of the 14th century there were three types of animal herds, but by the end of the 15th century The Book of St Albans (a Medieval how-to guide for gentlemen) had recorded 165 collective nouns for animals (and some for people too, including a ‘superfluity of nuns’).

A section called ‘The compaynys of beestys and fowlys’, contains a list of 165 ‘groups’ of animals such as “gaggle of geese” and the like. Some are truly poetic : a parliament of owls, a murder of crows, ambush of tigers, a memory of elephants, a crash of rhinos, a prickle of porcupines, a cackle of hyenas, an intrusion of cockroaches, a skulk of foxes, a tower of giraffes, and an army of frogs.

Some collective nouns are colourful but never quite caught on, including a fall of woodcocks and a shrewdness of apes. Some are now mysterious, such as cete of badgers or dopping of sheldrake, because we no longer have the vocabulary to understand them.

Amongst these group names are numerous humorous collective nouns for different professions, such as a “diligence of messengers”, a “melody of harpers”, a “drunkenship of cobblers”, “a subtlety of sergeants”, “a gaggle of women”, and a “superfluity of nuns”.

The terms of Venery (hunting) were born when hunting met courtly foppishness. Even in medieval Venery, the expressions were probably more like kennings, intended to show off the learning of a gentleman able to use them correctly rather than for any practical communication.

For an exhaustive list of nouns for animal groups, see here.

Modern Collective Nouns

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Inspired by so much linguistic wackiness, people have added their own lighthearted, humorous or facetious collective nouns.

Check out a few animal group names from the hilarious “The Onion Book of Known Knowledge: A Definitive Encyclopaedia Of Existing Information” :

A Gaggle of Geese
A Herd of Cattle
A Fuckload of Bees
A Pile of Eagles
Am Uneasy Partnership of Coyotes
A 101.5 “The Hammer” FM of Moths
A Wad of Raccoons
A Who Cares? of Voles
A Business Lunch of Meerkats
A Duffel Bag of Seals
A Shitstorm of sparrows
A Typist Pool of Iguanas
A Martin Landau of Goats

If you prefer your collective nouns more human-shaped, try some from the wonderful An Exultation of Larks

A Slouch of Models
A Shrivel of Critics
An Unction of Undertakers
A Blur of Impressionists
A Score of Bachelors
A Pocket of Quarterbacks

If you have any strange, funny or poetic collective nouns you’d like to share – or any you just enjoy – let us know in the comment section.

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.