Q: What do you call two crows on a branch?
A: An attempted murder.
I’ve been traveling with my family the past week and my mom requested this blog post after never having heard the joke before. I explained that a murder was a group of crows in the same way that a pride was a group of lions, or a business was a group of ferrets.
“But why do they call it a murder? What are those terms? You should do a post on that.”
These terms are a part of language called a collective noun. Most of us remember that a regular noun is a person, place, or thing, so a collective noun is a collection of people, places, or things (usually things) taken as a whole, or described as a single unit.
The most common and least specific collective noun is “group” because it can be applied to almost any noun. A group of people. A group of chickens. A group of mountains. What we’re communicating is pretty clear, but we can get much more colorful with our collective nouns to really specify what we’re talking about. A team of people, a clutch of chickens, and a mountain range.
If we’re talking about a murder of crows (or a clutch of chickens), it is a special kind of collective noun called a term of venery. These are terms for groups of animals, mostly. They began with English hunting vocabulary in the Late Middle Ages, to describe various groups of animals they might be following. Lists were recorded in various books in the fourteenth to fifteenth century and proliferated like crazy as people decided to add more and more collective nouns.
One of these books, entitled Book of Saint Albans or Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms was written for and popular among wealthy men. Published in 1486, the contents of the book spread into the English language through common usage among a large enough number of people. Though collective nouns were “made up” for the book, they became actual words because people felt they were useful. Not all of the collective nouns were created at the time, but enough of them were that it’s notable.
At this point, in 2014, the majority of them are not incredibly useful, so most people don’t use or know very many of these terms. However, they still are available to our lexicon whenever we decide. The most common collective nouns still in use are probably pack, herd, flock, and pride.
Though the histories of many collective nouns aren’t particularly inspiring, I find the words to be quite poetic in some cases. They create potential for a lot of musical language, especially with alliteration, but also with consonance and assonance. Some of them also have strong connotations in some contexts, which could be helpful in a line of verse to create tone. A murder of crows just sounds so much more vivid than a “group” or even a “flock.”
Some of my favorites are the following:
Because of the personification:
A congregation of alligators
An army of ants
A colony of bats
A family of beavers
A business of ferrets
Because of the sound and music:
A flutter of butterflies
A pounce of cats
A charm of finches
A gaggle of geese
A knot of toads
A watch of nightingales
Because of the connotation:
A cackle of hyenas
A bed of eels
A swarm of flies
A cloud of gnats
A scourge of mosquitoes
A cluster of spiders
You can find more of them here.
I encourage their use for poetic value alone. I would love to read a fairytale where a little girl finds a knot of toads in the forest or read a book where a sailor falls from his ship into a bed of eels. I can almost feel the need to hold my breath and squeeze my eyes shut when I read “a cloud of gnats,” which is a physical reaction I would never have to “a lot of gnats.” There is something sensory about many of the terms of venery that bring more life and sensation to the words than unspecific collective nouns.
As for why the collective noun for crows became “murder,” I’m not sure. Maybe it has to do with crows’ taste for carrion in their scavenging. Crows have been seen eating flesh, potentially that of humans, and this certainly may have contributed. Still, though, we do not call groups of other scavengers, or even predatory birds, “murders.” Several myths involve crows’ relationship to death or the dead, as well. Trying to get to the bottom of our cultural perception of crows would take a much longer blog post and a good deal more research.
Theories about naming the collective noun “murder” all relate to the connotation of death that our culture has long since associated with crows, but any specific tale of its origins has been lost to history.