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As I watched the murder of crows sitting on the line above my house this evening, I got wondering where all of the collective nouns for animals (pod of whales, gaggle of geese, pride of lions) came from and why we need so many. If sheep can be a flock, why can't whales, geese, lions, and crows?

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Who murdered the poor crows? :-) –  b.roth Aug 17 '10 at 16:53
    
I have plans. Oh yes, big big plans. Not only would it stop the incessant cawing, it would let me help a few people who need to to "eat crow." –  J.T. Grimes Aug 17 '10 at 18:10
    
Murder of crows, eh? Eerie. Never run into this feature of English before, but it's kinda fascinating (if bizarre); +1 for bringing it up. –  Jonik Aug 19 '10 at 3:01

3 Answers 3

Wikipedia suggests that the terms derive from Medieval hunting terms. The source cited is An Exaltation of Larks.

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Right - I own "An Exaltation of Larks" and it's well worth having. These terms of venery, as they're known, often have dual forms (in some, not all cases). –  The Raven Feb 22 '11 at 21:20

Sometimes the collective noun gives you additional meaning or maybe some poetic beauty. But most of the time it doesn't really add much. Most people will understand the phrase "A flock of crows" completely and some people won't even know that they could say "a murder of crows". Then there's the connotation of the word "murder" which you may not even want.

One advantage to using the collective nouns is that the collective implies the type of animal, so if talking about lions and gazelles you could say "The gazelle was overtaken by the pride" and anyone who knows that lions are in a pride would understand what you are saying.

Aside:

The situation is comparable to Chinese, where EVERY NOUN has a measure word. You don't say "two chopsticks", you say "two sticks of chopstick". In English we can say "two beers" but in Chinese you have to say "Two bottles of beer". However, there are lots of cases where a "proper" measure word can be replaced by a less proper one, or the generic measure word (ge 个). If you don't know the word for "small round thing" you can say "two ge marble" if you want two marbles. It's not 100% correct but people will understand and that's the important part.

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I very much doubt you there is a definitive answer for this.

Collective nouns became popular in the 14th and 15th century.

There are exhaustive lists. I suspect people considered it more artful and "proper", back in the day.

Animals in groups behave differently; the collective noun often hints at the behavior, formation or character of the group.

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feel free to correct any of my horrible phrasing. –  Sam Saffron Aug 17 '10 at 4:03
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my favorite, an ugly of walruses :) –  Sam Saffron Aug 17 '10 at 7:23
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Inventing new ones is fun too: I had a friend who talked of "an overwhelming of teenagers" –  Benjol Aug 17 '10 at 7:31
    
See also the book An Exaltation of Larks, which a relative just sent us last week. –  mmyers Aug 17 '10 at 17:46
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At my office, we speak of "a bewilderment of managers." –  J.T. Grimes Aug 17 '10 at 18:07

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