A CLUSTER OF CRITTERS
By Ruth Minshull
Recently I ran across an explanation for the phrase, “a MURDER of crows”. It seems that these boisterous, aggressive fellows have a practice of meeting occasionally to pass judgment on the behavior of one of their members. If they decide that the defendant deserves punishment, they will swoop down and peck him to death.
Not everyone agrees with this bit of lore. I saw one blog entry claiming that it was just a fallacious folk tale: “The basis in fact is probably that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn’t belong in their territory or, much more commonly, feed on carcasses of dead crows.”
Other people, however, claim to have seen this quick justice take place—and, they say, it’s not a pretty sight.
Whatever the facts, “a MURDER of crows” appears on every listing of collective nouns used to describe a group of animals, birds, fish, fowl and varmints of most every sort (including people).
The custom of making up such names goes way back. In fact, most of them (called terms of venery) were cooked up in the fifteenth century when it was necessary to codify hunting terms for the various clusters of game being sought by the hunters.
It was considered the mark of a gentleman to know such words and use them accurately. Several books listing collective terms were published in the late 1400’s and cultured men were expected to learn them lest they make some embarrassing blunder “at the table”—after which they would be ridiculed.
In his delightful book An Exaltatioin of Larks, James Lipton gives an excerpt from Conan Doyle’s novel Sir Nigel. One character, Sir John Buttesthorn, is scoffing at a young “jack-fool” for saying “a COVEY of pheasants.”
Sir John goes on to say that it should be: “…a NYE of pheasants, even as it is a GAGGLE of geese or a BADLING of ducks, a FALL of woodcock or a WISP of snipe. But a COVEY of pheasants! What sort of talk is that?”
Getting the correct term of venery no longer seems all that important to us. Still, it’s fun to peruse the collection of names. One after another catches my eye: a CHARM of finches, a PARTY of jays, a SIEGE of herons, a LABOR of moles, a BUSINESS of ferrets, a GAM of whales.
Then there’s the QUIVER of cobras. I wonder: is it the reptiles or the observer doing the quivering?
I didn’t expect the lists to have a name for a passel of paparazzi, but they did: A FEEDING FRENZY OF PAPARAZZI. That image has certainly held up over the centuries.
Many times the compilers couldn’t stop with one name. Thus, there can be a FLIGHT, a DULE, a DOLE or a PLAGUE of doves, as well as a PITYING of turtledoves.
Butterflies were treated kindly as a SWARM, RABBLE, KALEIDOSCOPE or a FLUTTER.
They got quite carried away when it came to cats and kittens. There’s a CLOWDER, POUNCE, CLUTTER and COMFORT of cats, as well as a KINDLE, LITTER, or INTRIGUE of kittens. (Now, I think I might have gone with a SNOOZE of cats and a FLUFF of kittens.)
Speaking of felines, an assembly of lions can be a PRIDE, FLOCK, SAWT, SOUSE, TROOP or SAULT. Personally if I met up with such a cluster, I wouldn’t worry much about what to call them but would instantly join a skedaddle of hightailers.
A battery of bees, likewise, has many names: A GRIST, HIVE, SWARM, DRIFT, BIKE, CLUSTER, ERST or NEST of bees—and if I encountered a buzz of those, I would also vamoose with maximum velocity.
I can’t help but think that there was often more whimsy than definitude in the choices—especially when it came to people. About crooks, they offered: a SCAM of con artists, a SCHEME of swindlers, a SKIM of embezzlers, a HELPING of pickpockets.
Even the religious were not ignored. We find: a MASS of priests, a FLAP of nuns, a SEA of Bishops, a FIDGET of altarboys. Law and politics were addressed: a BUTTONHOLE of lobbyists, an ESCHEAT of lawyers, a CROSS of litigators, an INSANITY of clauses and (one of my favorites) a PITFALL of fine print. In a similar vein, there is a HO! HO! of loopholes. (I might have chosen an AHA! of loopholes, myself.)
Although there are more than 1,000 entries in Lipton’s book, as I browse through it, I find myself wanting to make up my own terms of venery: a GIGGLE of little girls, a SWAGGER of teenage boys, a SNIDERY of gossips, a TUMBLE of puppies, a SQUAWK of seagulls.
This is irresistible!
An AGITATION of ants, a DITHER of dowagers, a POMPOSITY of congressmen.
On a more contemporary note: a CHAT of texters, a SNEAK of hackers, a TWEAK of programmers, a SPAMFUL of e-mails, an INTROVERSION of nerds, an EYEFUL of iPoders, a CLEVER of geeks, a BABBLE of bloggers, an EXHIBITION of FaceBookers, a TWADDLE of tweeters…
I can’t stop myself….
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(c)2010 by Ruth Minshull