Animal collective nouns?

A group of chickadees is called banditry due to their mask-like faces. (Provided photo — Diane Chase)

I’m mystified by the origin of animal groups’ names, like a murder of crows or a congregation of alligators. I am not looking for a complex, scientific reason. I understand the classification of animals (mammals, insects, birds, amphibians, fish, arthropods, vertebrates and invertebrates.) Some collective nouns such as herd, flock, school, litter, swarm, colony or pod are common. We apply these nouns to the primary (aforementioned) animal classification.

Nothing seems predictable with the various collective nouns, just whimsical names placed during some 18th century parlor game. If there isn’t a logical reason, I want to start renaming and making up groupings for Adirondack animals. As soon as an animal crosses over the Blue Line, we should be able to call it something new. It’s now in Adirondack territory. I’m getting off track.

There is a long tradition of animal group names. Also known as “nouns of assemblage” or “nouns of venery,” the naming of specific animal groups stems from an upper-class hunting tradition. “The Boke (Book) of St. Albans” was written in 1496 and seems to be the equivalent of Miss Manners for medieval gentlemen. Even in the 1400s, no one wanted to embarrass themselves at a high-scale hunting retreat. In addition to various societal rules, “The Boke of St. Albans” is the first written account (I believe) documenting animal collective nouns.

Since language is created by humans anyway, it makes sense that the language we use today is just a 13th century type of Urban Dictionary. Some terms make sense, like a prickle of porcupines, a route of wolves and a skulk of foxes. A grouping of moose could be more imaginative than just a herd. Perhaps an antler of moose?

After “The Boke of Albans” was published, the naming of groups of animals took off to where there are about 200 animal nouns of assemblage. Most of these terms are just fun to know but unnecessary for communication. We can easily substitute herd or swarm for most groups.

I’ll stick with using the basic animal terms, like an attic full of squirrels. Okay, fine. The actual name for a group of squirrels is a scurry, but language evolves, right? I’m off to fill the birdfeeder for the banditry of chickadees.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today