We’ve all heard of a ‘raven killing’, but do you know of a hippo swelling or a hint of jellyfish? What about a penguin tuxedo, giraffe tower, and owl parliament?
Turns out there is a whole list of fancy names for groups of animals (actually groups of humans too, but let’s stick with animals) that most of us have never heard of. , and even less used. They do not appear in biology books and do not appear to have any scientific basis. Instead, the names seem to reflect someone’s sense of humor, whoever they are. And it’s an open question whether or not they get used to anything beyond a fun trivia point or crossword clue.
I first heard about some of the more bizarre terms of these terms last week from friends who discovered them while looking for entertainment on a long road trip. Neither of us could explain who released the labels or who decided they were a thing. Most of the group’s names sounded too poetic and silly to be real, which left us all wanting to know more. So when I got home, I turned to my trusty information tool, Google, for the history of these terms.
It turns out that the denomination of animal groupings dates back to the 14th century and began as “terms of worship” (at least from what I found on the internet). Now if you’re like me you probably don’t know what worship means so I looked it up in a dictionary. The first definition that popped up – “sexual desire satisfaction” – was not what I expected. But I came down to more archaic uses of the word and found that hunting also means “the practice or sport of hunting” and that it was the hunters of the Middle Ages who first came up with cute names for animal groups. The earliest compilation of these terms dates back to the 1486 book (or Boke) of St. Albans, a collection of three essays on hunting attributed to Juliana Berners, a nun who apparently also had a soft spot for the sporting life.
Modern scholars believe that the terms of worship tend to have a pompous and suffocating tone due to their origins in the medieval hunting world. After all, only the nobility had access to most forms of hunting at the time, at least in England. Everyone was a poacher. Blogger Peter Lewis wrote in 2013: “During the 14th century it became a courtly fashion to expand vocabulary, and by the 15th century this trend had reached exaggerated proportions. In other words, people who wanted to appear smart used big words, even if they had to make up those words.
The terms of worship, therefore, were always meant to be some sort of inner joke that only scholars and the wealthy would be able to understand or use properly. Which means, as Lewis points out, it’s pretty amazing that some of these early labels have stuck around and are now commonly used in modern English. These enduring labels include a flock of sheep, a flock of geese, the murmuring of starlings and a school of fish (although here “school” is meant to come from Old English scolu, which means multitude and refers to the number of. fish rather than the idea that their orderly formations looked like students lined up in a classroom).
The whimsical nature of the terms of venery has, according to Lewis, roots in the practice of “kenning,” which is a form of word composition used in Old English, Old Norse, and Germanic poetry. During kenning, a poet creates mixed images or invents new compound words to describe an object or to act in an indirect, imaginative or enigmatic way. We may not recognize the term breeding, but it is a practice that continues to be widely used today. Just think about surfing the web, carpet rats, Bible belt, dust bags, ankle bite, four-eyed, motor mouth, keep your eyes open, or circle trees. We all know exactly what we mean when we use these phrases, but who thought about it first? How did they become part of everyday language? And what will people think of them in 1,000 years or more? Will they get the joke and figure out what we’re talking about? Or will the expressions seem crazy, archaic and impossible to interpret?
Some of the medieval terms in the Book of Saint Albans have full meaning for us today. Others not so much. For example, the author talks about a falcon leash, which refers to three hawks kept in a tower to be used for hunting by the nobility, and you always “throw” your hawks rather than letting them fly. To make matters even more confusing, there are often several different names for groupings of the same animals. So, geese are a flock on earth but a skein while flying, and swans can be a hold, a bevy, a flock, a game or a flight in the air, but they are called a bank when they are on the ground.
Many of the grouping names for animals that live in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem are well known and commonly used by all of us, such as a herd of deer, moose or bison, and herds of many species of birds. (although some get their own special term, such as a wickedness of the crows). Other terms are quite obscure: a bear detective, a beaver colony, a raccoon nursery, and a herd of squirrels. Some people assume that the bear sleuth is actually meant to be lazy and can refer to bears hibernating or appearing to move slowly, although that seems a bit of a stretch to me. A turtle whirlpool, on the other hand, works for me. After all, a cart is a heavy cart used to deliver loads, which you could say a turtle shell looks like. Of course, in the end, does that matter? No. But is it fun to think about it? I think so.
Still, I wonder how we got to some of our most colorful terms of venery? Plus, what gives anyone the right to say what they should be? It’s not like you publish your findings in a scientific journal for approval and acceptance. Could someone just come up with a list online and create a whole new lexicon? Perhaps. All I know is that next time I need a little trivia, terms of worship are going to be my fun fact.