A Crash? Clowder? Murder?

Ah, the whimsical world of collective animal nouns, a linguistic tradition that’s as quirky as it is charming! Did you know that these fanciful phrases date back to medieval times? They were initially coined by the gentry as a part of hunting etiquette – a way to distinguish the nobles from the peasantry and avoid any social faux pas in the process. The primary source for these terms is “The Book of Saint Albans,” printed in 1486. It’s a treasure trove of collective nouns, many of which are still used today, like a gaggle of geese.

The creation of these terms often stemmed from observations of animal behaviour (often infused with folklore and superstition) or notable characteristics. Interestingly, these collective nouns were not just limited to animals. Over time, as the English language evolved, collected nouns developed to include groups of people and even objects. (Some examples? A fleet of ships. A pack of cards. A panel of experts. A board of directors. A quiver of arrows. A ring of keys. A league of nations.) This expansion reflects the dynamic nature of language and how it adapts to societal and cultural shifts.

Here are some favourites featuring animals, all of which add a touch of humour, maybe even poetry, and vivid imagery to the description.

  • A group of rhinos is known as a “crash,” probably because of their hefty speed combined with not-so-great eyesight. Imagine them barreling along at 50 kph, barely seeing 10 metres ahead – crash indeed!
  • Owls, those wise nocturnal birds, are collectively called a “Parliament.” This term, popularized in part by C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” reflects their ancient association with wisdom and knowledge in Greek mythology.
  • Hyenas, with their laugh-like calls, are aptly named a “cackle.”
  • Elephants, with strong family bonds and impressive memories, are sometimes referred to as a “memory.” 
  • For giraffes, what could be more fitting than a “tower” of giraffes? 
  • What about the humble house cat? While a group of kittens is a “litter,” adult cats are collectively known as a “clowder”. This term has its roots in the late 1700s, where it evolved from the word “clodder,” meaning a clotted mass.
  • We’ve slandered crows since the 15th century, insisting upon calling their groupings a “murder”. Medieval folklore and superstition considered crows harbingers of doom. 
  • In the modern world, the collective noun for sloths, decided by popular vote, is a “snuggle.” 
  • Lastly, a group of zebras is known as a “dazzle,” possibly because their stripes can create a dizzying effect, making it hard for predators to single out individual animals.

These terms aren’t just linguistic flourishes (or the stuff of trivia games). They offer a glimpse into how language evolves and reflects our perceptions of the natural world. From the humorous to the poetic, collective nouns for animals add a layer of richness and creativity to our language, inviting us to see the animal kingdom through a more whimsical lens.

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