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I'm from Germany and I always try to improve my English. Lately, I've stumbled upon a website that deals with collective nouns, that is to say, names for various groups of animals.

I always thought you'd call, for instance, many owls just "a group of owls"; however, it said they are called "a parliament". Other examples are "a litter/kindle of kittens" and "a murder of crows".

I would never doubt the trustworthiness of this website, but is it really common for "normal" English speakers (people who aren't biologists etc.) to call groups of animals like that? Would not people be puzzled if I used those terms in everyday life?

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    Nah - most of these "terms of venery" are only known to most people because they're always turning up in pub night quizzes and Did you know? web pages. And even though I must have come across clowder of cats, raft of ducks, busyness of ferrets, etc. repeatedly over a lifetime, I've only been able to write them here because I just saw them in the list in that link. By tomorrow I'll have forgotten them again. They're not part of "normal spoken English" for ordinary folk. – FumbleFingers Sep 9 '16 at 22:26
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    That said, some terms are more common that others. "Murder of crows" is well known, and litter is actually standard. Parliament of owls would probably not raise an eyebrow if it was used, although flock would (I suspect) occur to most people. I think the answer to the question is "possibly". – Andrew Leach Sep 9 '16 at 22:30
  • But note that some, such as litter (of kittens, puppies, piglets, etc.) are perfectly common, as are words like herds and flocks (as "generic" terms - you're just as likely to hear herd of sheep as flock of sheep, perhaps partly because they're looked after by a shepherd). – FumbleFingers Sep 9 '16 at 22:30
  • On Owls, has there ever been a flock of them? I understand them to be primarily solitary birds, each with its own territory. Perhaps the lady with too much time on her hands thought of their territories as analogous to constituencies or great landed estates and imagined the owls occasionally coming together to discuss matters of great import as MPs and Lords do. So it's a fanciful term, but also describes a fanciful thing (since they don't flock) so it sort of doesn't matter. – Spagirl Sep 26 '16 at 9:13
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It's going to be hard for the non-native speaker to sort the wheat from the chaff here; that is, to distinguish the common from the uncommon from the purely fanciful.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia article on List of English terms of venery, by animal deliberately indicates the standard terms in bold, like flocks of birds or of sheep*, schools of fish but pods of dolphins, herds of—well herd animals of course, prides of lions, packs of wolves, teams of horses, and so on.

A few of the more common alliterative terms like a a gaggle of geese or covey of quail or if you're very luck even a clowder of cats will be known by many. But the silly stuff from the Middle Ages like a murder of crows or an unkindness of ravens or a parliament of owls or a congregation of magpies are unlikely to be in general use.

There is probably room for a middle ground here for specialist terms, but where the lines are drawn is anybody's guess.


* I have no idea why both birds and sheep come in flocks.

  • That's exactly what I was looking for! I'll try to get used to the terms in bold. Thank you! – Fabian Sep 9 '16 at 22:53
  • In my experience, murder of crows is pretty well known. – Nakaan Sep 10 '16 at 5:45
  • Birds and sheep are both kind of soft and fluffy. – Hot Licks Sep 25 '16 at 23:43
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    The murder of crows might be more common, although the movies, books and TV episodes that carry that title have seldom anything to do with actual crows and more with murder. – Helmar Sep 26 '16 at 8:58
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It's all nonsense, and mostly pretentious nonsense.

I'm truly sorry that I can't now find a reference to her, but some time prolly about the middle of the 18th century an English country gentlewoman with more time and imagination than most amused herself for half a day inventing the infamous list which includes parliaments, murders and the rest.

Purely because she did have such a vivid imagination, almost no-one since has been prepared to denounce the whole idea, and every time they don't it gains a little more credence.

Verify that at audubon.org/news/no-its-not-actually-murder-crows among other sites

  • I did hear an expert on the TV recently speaking at length about the wonderful murmurations of starlings near one of our local wildlife reserves. I always thought that was a pretentious invented term but either it's a genuine one or it's become accepted by birders as a result of monotonous repetition. – BoldBen Dec 2 '16 at 13:48

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