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.

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