What is the point of this joke?

— "What do you call two crows on a branch?"
— "Attempted murder."

I've googled it to check if it was a word play but the closest one I've hit was "marauder". Someone care to explain?

  • 20
    Check for less common senses of 'murder'. Sep 4 '14 at 20:38
  • 26
    So the branch is not a crow bar?
    – Erik Kowal
    Sep 4 '14 at 22:08
  • 13
    This has always been one of my favourite jokes (especially in the Internet version where it's a picture of two crows with the caption “Attempted murder”), along with the one that's a picture of a bunch of very blond lions basking in the sun captioned “White pride”. Sep 4 '14 at 22:14
  • 23
    Voting to reopen. The help pages specifically say that jokes that don't rely on the English language are off topic; this is a joke that does rely, very much, not just on the English language, but on a somewhat erudite aspect of it. Sep 5 '14 at 6:31
  • 10
    Same thing: a group of fish is called a school of fish, so two would be kind of like preschool (training to be a proper school). Sep 5 '14 at 10:13

The joke is a play on words [Cambridge Dictionary] on various definitions of murder.

A group of crows is called a murder. [Wikipedia]

Two is not quite a group, hence an attempted murder.

To further beat the joke to death, murder also means homicide, and attempted murder is a crime in British and United States' penal codes. The unusual combination of birds and crime adds to the humor as a non-sequitur.

  • 5
    Two is not quite a group - Exactly. Everybody knows that two's company!
    – gla3dr
    Sep 4 '14 at 22:52
  • 6
    A crowd of course! It's a terrible joke I read years ago: If two's company and three's a crowd, what are four and five?
    – gla3dr
    Sep 5 '14 at 0:26
  • 20
    @gla3dr uh, 9??
    – bib
    Sep 5 '14 at 0:42
  • 21
    Actually, 4 AND 5 is 4...
    – Michael
    Sep 5 '14 at 20:32
  • 19
    @Josh This is what we get when we let coders play with natural languages.
    – bib
    Sep 6 '14 at 0:11

It’s not really a language joke—it’s a cultural joke, I think.

There is a superstition that three crows seen together bodes murder. Therefore, two crows seen together is one crow short of murder—or “attempted murder”.

It’s true that a group of crows is sometimes called a “murder”, but this seems to stem from the superstition, and not the other way around. Given the precise number two in the joke, I would guess that the superstition is being referred to, not the word.

  • 5
    It is not a “superstition”; it is a term of venery, which is something else altogether. After all, a man left murdered in the fields would soon have a flock of crows mobbing his fragrant corpse. No “superstition” is required here, just The Book of Saint Albans or the more recent An Exaltation of Larks. :)
    – tchrist
    Sep 6 '14 at 16:09
  • 1
    The point is, it’s possible that the term of venery is derived from the superstition. For what reason, other than superstition, would exactly three crows be so important? Sep 6 '14 at 21:15
  • 2
    It is not that a gathering of crows indicate that there shall be a murder, but rather that there has already been one. Therefore there is no superstition involved, merely observed habit and fact. Corvids of all sorts are notorious for flocking to the aftermaths of bloody battles, whose slain have provided a feast for crows since the dawn of time.
    – tchrist
    Sep 6 '14 at 21:29
  • But why exactly three? And yes, there is definitely a superstition that the dying will take place in the future—a Google search will confirm. Certainly it may be rooted in the observation you mention, but it seems to have taken a life of its own, and I think it’s this that the joke is referring to. Sep 7 '14 at 0:10
  • 2
    Counting crows The closest rhyme to this seems to be: "One for sorrow, Two for mirth; Three for a wedding, Four for death.". Not "three for a murder". Sep 14 '14 at 19:52

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.