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shameless pleading

Murder of Crows, etc.

A flummox of questions?

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve just heard a new one that I can’t find in most of the usual authorities, while it appears plainly in others: a group of crows described as a “murder of crows.”  Any clues? — KT, Albuquerque, NM.

Thanks for a great question.  I’m surprised that you haven’t run into “murder of crows” before — the internet is full of compilations of such collective nouns, colorful terms for groups of animals, people or things.  Some of the terms collected on websites, such as “an absence of waiters” or “an attitude of teenagers,” are clearly of recent vintage, coined in tiny fits of wit by the kind of people who drive their friends and families mad with constant puns.  For me, a little of this goes a long way, and eventually “a brace of orthodontists” or “a disputation of lawyers” makes me feel like I’m trapped in one of those creepy-cutesy public radio quiz shows.

But it would be mistake to tar all of these terms as simply casual inventions in pursuit of a chuckle.  Of course, someone did make them up.  The entire English language was “invented” in one way or another.  But the truly interesting collective nouns, such as “murder of crows” or “a  cete of badgers,” were coined a very long time ago, mostly in the 15th century, and far from being merely fanciful inventions, these terms were once considered the proper way to describe a group of animals.  Some, such as “a pride of lions” and “a gaggle of geese,” remain in common use today after being rescued from obscurity and revived in the 19th century.

We owe our knowledge of these terms today to several lists compiled in the 15th century, the most complete being “The Book of St. Albans,” attributed to Dame Juliana Barnes, prior of a nunnery in England.  But for modern readers, the best introduction to the genre is “An Exaltation of Larks” (1968) by James Lipton (best known today as host of “Inside the Actors Studio” on the Bravo cable channel).  Lipton divides his book into three parts:  terms found in the 15th century collections that remain in use today (such as “a host of angels” and “a string of ponies”); old terms (such as “a cast of hawks” and “a knot of toads”) that were once common but have fallen into obscurity, and, lastly, oddities from the old collections.  These mostly describe people, rather than animals, from the logical “an illusion of painters” to the intriguing  “a rage of maidens” (employing “rage” in the 14th century sense of “jesting, fun; riotous or wanton behavior”).

As for why we call a group of crows a “murder,” the inspiration for the term is a mystery, lost since the 15th century.  As the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, “murder” may “perhaps [allude] to the crow’s traditional association with violent death, or … to its harsh and raucous cry.”  Then again, since crows have recently been demonstrated to be capable of advanced reasoning and even tool-making, maybe they actually did plot a few murders back in the 15th century.

62 comments to Murder of Crows, etc.

  • Cybercow

    We’ve just decided that the plural for “doofus” is to be: “doofi”.

    We further hereby propose the collective noun for more than one doofus to be “a chagrin of doofi”.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

  • Adult Orthodontics Gal

    The constant puns like the brace of orthodontists are really annoying. If you read los angeles times for example, their headlines are full of them, quite annoying don’t you say? Katty

    ed: not as annoying as the commercial link you put (and I removed) under “brace of orthodontists.”

  • Ruby

    I have read that a Murder of Crows came about because crows have been known to kill a dying cow.

  • David Hughes

    Is there a collective noun for LOONS? (a lunacy or loonacy of loons?) A friend just returned from Maine where she had seen ten or eleven loons at once and didn’t know whether it was a “flock” or something else.

    Thank you!

  • words1

    For loons, I think “a conspiracy” would do nicely.

  • Wobiwan

    One search team…… A whole google of searchers ???

  • I recently decided that the collective noun for more than one nun is a “pinto”.

  • Goatscrote

    Amusingly this ‘article’ is cited in Wikipedia as one of two sources for the expression even though it gives the square root of bugger all as evidence.

  • orly

    @Goatscrote:
    I also ended up here from Wikipedia and while I agree with you that this is not an appropriate primary source citation, I wouldn’t go so far as to take the root of bugger-all from it. This article does provide you with the sources (James Lipton’s “An Exaltation of Larks”, 1968 and Dame Juliana Barnes, “The Book of St. Albans”), which are what the wiki article should have referenced in the first place.

    Thanks for an interesting write up. Just ordered “An Exaltation of Larks.”

  • pamina

    a tattlery of comments

  • Javier

    I would like “a rage of comments”

  • The correct term for a group of crows is a flock. The term “Murder of Crows” is poetic at best and has only come into common usage since the book, “An Exaltation of Larks”, listed it, and various authors thought it was a clever title for mystery books and movies. No ornithologist uses the term and most crow fanciers avoid it. Far from being murderous, crows are very family oriented, and frequently show behavior that might well be considered altruistic. Check the crows.net website for more information about crows.

    • Aisha

      @Michael Westerfield: Yes, they are quite family-oriented and altruistic, aren’t they? I’ve seen a nestful of them and the female won’t let anyone near it! Like, not into it, but she considers a four-kilometer radius from her nest her territory! I seriously think crows and I have much in common–starting with our hatred and mistrust of babysitters!

  • Per the American Society of Crows and Ravens – or at least, per their policy of mutual support (as crows themselves are known to do), the correct term is a “Caucus of Crows.”
    1. Sounds like something a crow would say;
    2. Rhymes with “raucous,” and
    3. Suggests a group with an agenda, perhaps secret.
    It’s worthy of being a meme, so I promote its use where I can.
    I’m out on an island off the NW coast, where we don’t have American crows, but rather Northwestern Crows Corvus caurinus – another name that sounds like someone asked a crow.
    Although crows are despised by some as nest-robbers, their alarm calls when predators threaten are well understood by other species; songbirds indeed benefit greatly by the crow’s alert protection.

  • Jim

    Mr. Wewsterfield clearly hasn’t researched his response above. If he did he would find that theterm Murder of crows originated in the 1400′s. Nothing to do with any modern day book……………..Have a “barrel of laughs”, folks..

    • Jim, please note that I stated that the term had “only come into common usage” since the publication of “An Exaltation of Larks”. I did not say that it first appeared in that book. It is an old British term which was not commonly used until it appeared in the recent popular book along with a host of poetic or archaic terms for groups of other creatures. It has been made even more popular by its use in titles of mystery books, names of music groups, etc. The fact remains that it is quite inappropriate to use to describe gatherings of these social, intelligent, and relatively peaceful birds. http://www.crows.net You could also enjoy my recent book, “The Language of Crows: The crows.net Book of the American Crow.” http://www.crows.net/crowbook.html

      • …the way you describe crows as “social, intelligent, and relatively peaceful” you could also be describing a serial killer on their down time…

        …don’t take it so seriously, crows have had a reputation as harbingers of death, evidently for at least over 600 years that is recorded, and certainly for far longer…they kill their own, can kill cows, and are also known to hang around a dying persons vicinity, no one is questioning their intelligence…..yes they’re social, if you count a wake a social event…where there is smoke there is fire…

  • Sean R

    I always supposed that term hinted at the idea that if you kill someone and leave the body in some remote or hidden outdoors location, a “murder” of crows might reveal your secret.

  • Mark

    How about a “flush of toilets” when refering to you know what?

  • Hunt

    I have assumed that a Murder of Crows referred to their nest robbing. When a group of them move through an area in the spring they are very good at robbing baby birds from the nests. One or two distract while the other(s) get the babies.

  • Tyrskald

    I’ve never heard of a Caucus of Crows, though certainly, I’m familiar with a Murder of them. I do like the explanation for Caucus, however.

    Ravens, I have seen are often named an “Unkindness.”

    I propose a name for a collection of basset hounds, based loosely on one of their most famous anatomical featurs… I name a group of these cute and comical canines, a “Lobe of Basset Hounds.”

    Thoughts? Email me at Tyrskald@aol.com

    Thanks!

  • Squiggy

    Jim: Your evidence being? Or are we just saying things like they’re facts now?

    “Gosh, Jim didn’t research his comment or he’d have seen that ‘a murder of crows’ is as old as language itself!”

  • jb

    it is because the have been seen hunting small game -I have seen them kill and eat an entire nest of young squirls and have seen a video of then killing a samil of young rabbits

  • Christian

    Hey Jim, maybe you should read the article before commenting.

    How about ‘ a string of asses….’

  • B

    I studies environmental science with two ornithologists and they did call it a murder of crows. Additionally, Christian and Squiggy need to lay off Jim. If either of you had actually read the article, you would have seen that it supports what he said and that Westerfield obviously did not even read it!

  • I assure you that I did indeed read the article. I simply disagree with the use of the term, regardless of the tradition behind it.

  • Aisha

    Hi there, I was just gonna say, corvids are actually more intelligent than dogs. (yeah cause they’re according to tests as smart as a chimpanzee) What a slap in the face to all the dog lovers. Now, I have nothing against the furry canines, but I love me my corvidae. Also, I hereby name a group of jinglepots, which is a word for stupid people: “A cacophony of jinglepots”.

    • Nicholas

      I would have to see the direct data to believe that corvidae are as smart as chimpanzees. I have seen many “scientific” conclusions drawn from data that does not support such conclusions and certainly not to the standard of science.

  • Lee Esquibel

    In ancient Japan, because of the difficulty of feeding rural families, the very elderly were taken to a mountaintop in the winter where they were left to die. It was fervently hoped by the family that the elders would die of exposure before the crows got to work on them. Their departure conserved the limited food supply for the rest. One of Japan’s traditional plays “Sakurayama” is about this gruesome practice. Tokyo and Yokohama have the largest crows I’ve ever seen. They look to have bodies about 18 inches long and are armed with 3 inch beaks. They’re intelligent, brash, noisy, and fearless and the term, “Murder of Crows” fits them perfectly.

  • How about a “pliney of poets” or a “fliver of Fords”? I mean, if we’re going to coin phrases, at least have some fun with it.

  • Dina Kazanowski

    Is it true that a “congress” of baboons is an acceptable
    group name used to supplant “troop?” I know that language is constantly changing, both words and definitions, but how often is “congress” used in reference to baboons?

  • Fixit

    LOL @ Dina..

    to answer your question, I would say at least 5 to 10 times a day on CSPAN.

  • David MacMillan

    It’s quite common for a term to apply to more than one species. For example, one can have a herd of cattle or deer or bison, etc.

    However, it wasn’t until I read the works of the great author, Patrick F. McManus (Professor of English at Eastern Washington State University) that I learned the term “murder” applies not only to crows, but it also applies to wives !!

  • John Allen

    I have heard that a group of crows is also referred to as a congress. Near my house are several large pine trees. once a month of so 50 to 100 crows meet there and caw at one another for hours. At that I can see where congress came from. And once they start cawing I can hear where murder came from. It is not what they do, but we would like to do.

  • Kt3

    Hi John Allen

    It made me smile to read yr comment, my son is frequently invaded by 100′s of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos in the trees outside his house and the noise is unbearable. We thought “An execution of cockatoos”, would be appropriate.

  • Usul

    I wonder why a group of sheep are called a Flock, like they were birds.

  • My wife and I give scraps of food to A “murder” of crows here in town. One day near here one was hit by a car and injured. The others attacked it viciously. We chased them away but the injured one flew too with the others in pursuit. This made me think about why they may be called a murder of crows. If what we saw was an example of crow behavior that could be the reason for the “murder” designation.

  • arif mahmood

    i want to know about the age of the crow in sub continantal

  • Steven

    My contribution is less academic, more “pop culture” (though only “pop” back in the 90′s). I was curious a long time ago about one of my favorite pop music groups of the ’90s that go by the name “Counting Crows” and one of their songs which was titled, “A Murder of One”. When I heard the collective “murder” as describing a group of crows, I put 2 and 2 together (that makes a “couple” of twos, to be apropo). I admit that up until today, I thought “murder” was the correct (and current) collective, not “flock”. So today, as I was attempting to prove this to a friend, I stand corrected. Still, a great band nevertheless.

  • Patrick

    I read a caucus of crows will form from a large geographic area specifically attack an owl; their natural enemy. Certainly their intent is to “murder” the owl if possible. I am not familiar with other species so intent on such genocide, except humans of course.

  • Richard

    So would 2 or 3 crows be considered attempted murder?

  • NWovalfan

    Funny that no one has mentioned Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. There certainly was murder there!

  • Jeffrey Jay

    An Annoyance of Trolls?

  • Lucylu

    This admittedly is farfetched, but what if “murder” is a mispronunciation of another word, like “martyr,” which, I checked, is derived from “martys,” which in the 12th century was used for “witness?” I prefer to think of crows as witnesses, rather than murderers.

  • Charles Norman

    Johnsmith is right. I once came upon a crow half-lying in the ditch on the side of the road. It was being aggresively attacked by another crow that was only half heartedly defending itself.

    In the trees at the edge of the ditch were about two dozen crows giving raucus encouragement to the attacker.

    It certainly seemed to me that murder was being done. unfortunately as I appproached they all flew away, including the victim, so I did not get to see the final result.

    In the middle ages people were much closer to the land than we are today, perhaps incidents like the one above are not uncommon and were well known to the people of the time.

    For what it’s worth I was reminded of teen-age swarming or cyber-bullying. Regrettably our politicians behave in the same way at the merest hint of a scandal.

  • kevin

    Crows form into flocks to literally murder large birds of prey. A few gather, make some noise, more gather, make more noise until hundreds of crows are in a flock. They then attack hawks, eagles and owls and clear them out of the neighborhood. I live in the suburbs of Boston, and several times in my life have I see a massive group of crows ominously gather to murder their predators. To me, the name murder only makes sense because that is what large groups of crows do.

    • Nicholas

      I think you’re onto something. It seems that in a number of different circumstances groups of crows kill and this was probably considered a very fascinating behavior in the days when there was less variety of human inventions and less information exchange.

  • Harvey Kalmeyer

    In Denver CO I have seen crows behind fast food establishments step on a ketchup packets and peck at it until they can get the ketchup. They change their footing to squeeze it our of the packet.

  • John

    I just call them a “Big Bunch of Black Birds.”

  • Roger

    Institute of loons
    Alphabet of jays
    Speight of sparrows
    Round of robins
    Muddle of mocking birds
    Hotel of herons
    Aegis of egrets, and finally,
    A jones of wordsmiths!

  • PJohn

    Very amusing to witness these fervid attempts at application of rigid logic to understanding of these terms. Were that a likely route, then there can be no understanding our youth, who daily seem to coin new words of no redeeming – or logical – value whatsoever. Personally, I enjoy the color they lend to language, and see no point in arguing over whether one “likes” one term or another, nor in insisting that each be rigidly confined etymologically. When etymology is certain, it’s interesting and frequently useful in the search for nuance in expression. When it’s not, then the variations simply exist without known reason. Duh. Speak as you wish – the informed may upon occasion understand you.
    …. and kudos to the contributors of wit herein extant.

  • Eugene

    We have in our neck of the woods lots of turkey vultures, the most graceful of fowl in the air and the most competent of clean-up crew on the ground. We use two collective nouns to describe them: when in the air we call them a “swirl of vultures” and when feeding a “banquet of vultures.”

  • Elizabeth Symanski

    What is the word for a group of baboons? How about monkeys? Thanks!

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