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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
    Commented Aug 17, 2010 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." Commented Aug 17, 2010 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
    Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 3:01

4 Answers 4

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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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    my favorite, an ugly of walruses :) Commented Aug 17, 2010 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
    Commented Aug 17, 2010 at 7:31
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    At my office, we speak of "a bewilderment of managers." Commented Aug 17, 2010 at 18:07
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    I'll go with artful, and as it's Halloween I'll add my own collective noun, "a fraid of ghosts":-)
    – ukayer
    Commented Nov 1, 2010 at 0:17
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    Not sure if you've heard of a 'flange of baboons'. Basically, it appeared on a British comedy show but has since been seen in the world - even in a scientific paper, with no hint of parody.
    – Dan Blows
    Commented May 8, 2011 at 11:40
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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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It was lingual fun.

The trend developed in the middle of the 15th century and one of the first such lists occurs in The Bokys of Haukyng and Huntyng; and also of coot-armuris better known as Boke of Seynt Albans or The Book of St. Albans printed 1486.

That it also contains such entries as "a doctrine of doctors", "a disworship of Scots" and "a gaggle of women", "a sentence of judges" and "a fighting of beggars" shows that this was something people had fun with from the early days of the form.

It provides a form of idle learning; the pointlessness of knowing such collective nouns is where the charm lies. It is telling that such uses largely died away, but made a revival in the 19th century.

Likely they originated in the earlier distinctions of e.g. using flock for sheep and goats but herd for cattle and deer, and was then taken to further lengths.

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  • Evidence supporting the "it was just for fun" hypothesis: This person interviewed a whole bunch of biologists and asked them if they use terms of venery, and most of them gave variations of "no, I don't" as an answer. The only exception was "Wombats do not form groups in the wild" - which is an even stronger "no," in my book.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 19:52
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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
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 21:20

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