My goal to learn something new every day
A pack of dogs, a flock of ducks and a pride of lions. Terms most people have probably heard of. And many are probably also aware that there are literally hundreds of these terms to describe various animals. It’s the kind of thing that comes up in pub quizzes… and ELT books every now and again.What are they? Where did they come from? And what are some of the more unusual ones? All questions that I set about finding the answer to today.
They are of course collective nouns, but more specific than that, they are known as terms of venery. The word venery is an archaic word that was used in Middle English. Oxford Dictionaries says that it simply means hunting and comes from Old French venerie meaning ‘to hunt’, which itself comes from the Latin venari. Side note: Oxford Dictionaries says that an alternative definition for the word, also archaic, is sexual indulgence, but we’ll not concern us with that for today.
Today, we can probably get away with saying things like a group for many collections of animals. Many people might use pack or herd to describe a wide variety of animals. But that’s today. 500 years ago you wouldn’t have been so lucky. Not, that is, if you’d have wanted to fit in with the gentlemen of the time. Many terms of venery came about during the 15th century, and appeared in a variety of “handbooks” for gentlemen. One of the most well-known handbooks was the Book of Saint Albans. It was first published in 1486, and, as Wikipedia describes it, was “a compilation of matters relating to the interests of the time of a gentleman.” What were the interests of gentleman of the time you may wonder. Well they included activities such as hawking, heraldry, angling and of course hunting. The book contained, at first, three essays on hawking, hunting and heraldry with a fourth essay on angling being added in a later edition. The book included, as an appendix, a rather long list of collective nouns known as the Compaynys of beestys and fowlys. Perhaps surprisingly, the terms included on the list referred not only to animals, but also to groups of people.
Many of the terms of venery found in the Book of Saint Albans were meant to be humourous. Rather fantastically, the book has been digitized and is available online at archive.org. Of course, much of it unreadable to the majority of people today. For a full list of the Compaynys of beestys and fowlys, you can visit this site.
A handful of the more unusual terms I found are listed below. The translations may be slightly off, but all of the following seem to crop up in a couple of places online.
an unkyndenes of ravenes = an unkindness of ravens
a sleuth of beeris = a sleuth of bears
a besynes of ferettis = a business of ferrets
a skulke of foxis = a skulk of foxes
a gagle of women = a gaggle of women
a multiplieng of husbondis = a multiplying of husbands
a worship of writeris = a worship of writers
a Noonpatiens of wyves = an impatience of wives
And if this kind of thing really interests you, you may find James Lipton’s book, an Exaltation of Larks, quite fascinating. Lipton has, as the publisher comments on the book’s website state, “embarked on an odyssey” to find hundreds of terms that today are all but forgotten. For a preview, you may be interested in this article on Mental Floss, which lists 50 of the words from Lipton’s book.