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I love the subset of collective nouns known as the terms of venery. These are collective nouns specific to a particular group of animals. Some of the more inventive examples are: a murder of crows, a crash of rhinos, a mischief of mice, and a puddling of ducks (specifically swimming ducks).

Is there a standard for these group names and is there a central reference for them as with other zoological taxonomy? I can see in the Wikipedia articles that the practice has its origins in Medieval Hunting tradition, but the Kangaroo (Mob), for instance would have been unknown at that time, so how do new collections come into being?

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Similar question: Terms for collections of animals. –  z7sg Ѫ Apr 16 '11 at 8:23
    
I hate terms of venery with a vengeance. It has always seemed a presumptuous and capricious exercise in futility (both its creation and its use). 'Flock' is fine. Oops, I just made one up, so now you must use this and no other term for its purpose - to confuse the reader. ;) --> english.stackexchange.com/questions/76094/… –  Henrik Erlandsson Jul 27 '12 at 9:04

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

If you have interest in this subject, James Lipton's An Exaltation of Larks is the chief reference work.

What you'll learn is that there are usually two (and sometimes three) group nouns for animals and birds. There will be a term of venery of a classical nature, often coined by hunters or gamekeepers (a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, a parliament of owls) and a general term used by laypersons (flock, herd).

Expert English users will be familiar with both sets, and general users will have a vague sense that there are such terms, but know very few of them.

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Also interesting is Sir Oliver Buttesthorn's description, to young squire Nigel, of the terms of venery in Conan-Doyle's Sir Nigel. –  Robusto Apr 16 '11 at 13:32
    
+1 Nice answer, actually belying the "An unkindness of ravens" of the "Book of St. Albans" itself. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 18 '11 at 8:20
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+1 Just because you have the best username for answering this question. –  T.E.D. Aug 8 '11 at 12:51

Apparently the original source from which most of these names came is the Book of St. Albans, originally published around 1480.

Wikipedia states that:

A modern collection is James Lipton, An Exaltation of Larks, Penguin Books, 1968, ISBN 0-670-30044-6.

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The book is one of the earliest written records of the existence of these terms; it is not the source per se. Just the earliest recorded written use, I doubt the author(s) made them all up. –  Orbling Apr 18 '11 at 6:00
    
@Orbling: not all of them, for sure, but my understanding is that -at least for the odd ones- the book is the source. –  nico Apr 18 '11 at 6:16
    
Would be very hard to say either way; one of the troubles with "original" sources of this nature. ;-) –  Orbling Apr 18 '11 at 8:53
    
@Orbling: I just assuming popular usage could be excluded for certain animals. It's not everyday that you see a cauldron of bats... On the other hand, certain terms, especially those used by hunters, most probably came before the book. –  nico Apr 18 '11 at 10:35
    
Depends where you live, I see bats quite regularly, possibly not a whole cauldron's worth, but hard to say. ;-) –  Orbling Apr 18 '11 at 11:15

There is certainly no “standard” — no equivalent to L'Académie française — to regulate these matters! They are just phrases that catch on because they meet a need, or because people like the sound of them, or in the same way that clichés turn into idioms.

Most are lost in antiquity, of course, but I can shed some light on mob of kangaroos. In Australian English, mob is a general word for any kind of flock, herd or drove, so when writers needed a collective noun for kangaroos mob was the obvious choice.

New collective nouns arise all the time. From the metonym panel we get panel of experts. From the rare usage of shower to mean contemptible person or people we get shower of bastards.

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Taxonomy is a scientific pursuit, though obviously incomplete, still with the goal of being precise. One universal name per animal, decided and agreed upon by the community.

The things you're describing aren't of scientific interest, and are much more flexible, imprecise popular meanings. I can't think of any better reference than a dictionary though their goals are more to reflect popular usage than to be a definitive source.

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There is, however, a strong historical component to it. These very specific animal groups names are quite specific of English. Although I am not 100% sure English is the only language that is so fussy about group names, for sure I can tell you that most Latin languages are not. Popular usage wouldn't go so in depth as to generate a convocation of eagles or a labour of moles. In fact, most people only know but the most common collective names. The starting point of all this is the Book of St. Albans, which I cited in my answer. This also explains why these names are English-only :) –  nico Apr 16 '11 at 13:37
    
There is nothing scientific about the terms of venery, they are just a fun aspect of the language. –  Orbling Apr 18 '11 at 5:59
    
Well I suppose my point was I think them more silly than useful. This is, I suppose, just fine, but I am more scientific. –  colechristensen Apr 18 '11 at 7:32

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