If you’ve ever researched the strange terminology for animal groups (known as terms of venery), you know there’s a lot more than just herds and packs. Where did these oddball collective nouns come from? We’ve discovered the origin stories for some of the most interesting animal group names out there. Who knows? One of them might become your next fun fact at a cocktail party.
The History of Collective Nouns and Venery
"Venery" is an old-school term for hunting. It wasn’t scientists who coined fanciful names like "a charm of hummingbirds" or "a cauldron of bats." Rather, 15th-century Englishmen (who were typically wealthy and educated) would come up with names for animal gangs while hunting. The terms of venery eventually found their way into books. Although they were never fully adopted by the science community, they've managed to stick around as a clever way to show off your animal (and vocabulary) knowledge.
Parliament of Owls
There are multiple literary references to a wise group of owls. C.S. Lewis’ classic tales, The Chronicles of Narnia, feature a council of owls that meet at night to review the affairs of Narnia. It's a reference to a Geoffrey Chaucer poem titled “Parliament of Foules” (fowls), which was written in the 14th century.
Murder of Crows
We're not quite sure why a "piteousness of doves" deserves our pity, but we'll give it to these heavenly creatures. Dark-winged crows, however, had an opposite reputation. Coincidence or not, they’d often appear in cemeteries, on battlefields, or just about anywhere disaster had struck. There’s also a rumored "crow parliament" where hundreds of birds will gather only to kill off one of their own. That, plus the loud, harsh cries they make when in a pack, contributed to this macabre name.
Shrewdness of apes
Given the close connection between humans and primates, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was an adept way to describe a cluster of intelligent monkeys. However, when the term was coined in the 15th century, shrewdness meant wickedness, which was likely related to the natural mischievousness of monkeys. As language has evolved, this name now suits clever apes even more astutely.
Bloat of Hippopotamuses
Somehow, in all the terms of venery crafted over the centuries, poor hippos were left out until the early 20th century, when they were given this rather unfortunate collective noun in a hunting and fishing manual. That’s not to say the name isn’t appropriate. Male hippos can weigh over 7,000 pounds and have a thick layer of subcutaneous fat that helps them float and, yes, makes them look bloated.
Gaggle of Geese
Compared to most terms of venery, this example is a bit more well known thanks to its charming alliteration. Geese were given this label to describe their general noisiness — and if you've ever heard the loud, squawking, honking sounds they make when clustered in a group, you probably understand why.