Have you ever wondered why we use such strange terms for groups of different animals, or where these terms came from? Having so many ridiculous names for groups of animals might seem a little excessive or pointless, but they were originally coined with a purpose.
Words referring to groups of animals are called terms of venery, an old word for “hunting” derived from the Latin word venari, meaning “to hunt, or pursue.”1 Although most terms of venery are largely unknown and unnecessary for most of us today, they were once part of Medieval hunting traditions, which included a plethora of specific terms for groups of animals. Considering the sheer number of terms and the arguable lack of practicality of such jargon, it is quite possible that many terms of venery may have been used more for academic purposes or as an indicator of one’s expensive education rather than for regular use among the common folk.2 Even solitary animals that do not naturally form groups have their own special terms for no apparent reason other than to say they have one.
Terms of venery have been recorded in several notable works. One of the most famous books to include terms of venery is The Book of Saint Albans, also known as The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms, which was likely written by a highly educated prioress named Juliana Berners. Enthusiasts looking for a more modern collection of terms might also be interested in James Lipton‘s An Exaltation of Larks, which includes old terms of venery along with collective nouns for just about anything else imaginable.
Now that we know where all the strange animal terminology came from, let’s have a look at a few interesting and humorous names for groups of animals.
- Apes: a “shrewdness” — A clever term for one of the more clever creatures of the animal kingdom.
- Cats: A group of cats may be called a “clowder” or a “glaring.” The latter is easy to remember since cats have those big “glaring” eyes they always glare so disapprovingly at everyone with. A group of kittens is called a “litter” or a “kindle,” and a group of wild cats is aptly named a “destruction.”
- Cockroaches: an “intrusion” — This might be the most fitting term on the list.
- Crows: a “murder” — A fitting name and easy to remember considering their associations with death.
- Flamingos: a “stand” or a “flamboyance” — Both of these words are very appropriate, but “flamboyance” has to be more fun to say. And what bird is more flamboyant than a bright pink flamingo?
- Frogs: an “army” — Remember this one by thinking about the second of the ten plagues God sent on Egypt in Exodus 8. Egyptians saw frogs as a sign of fertility associated with their goddess Heqet. It’s interesting how God used their own idols and gods against them.
- Giraffes: a “tower” — Never mind, this one might be more fitting than an intrusion of cockroaches.
- Hippos: a “bloat” — They do look a little bloated.
- Jellyfish: a “smack” — Should have been a “sting.” *Ba dum tss*
- Komodo dragons: a “bank” — What creature has ever been better at guarding gold than dragons? From Beowulf to the The Hobbit, dragons have always been very stingy with their money.
- Lemurs: a “conspiracy” — Makes sense. Their eyes just make it look like they’re up to something.
- Locusts: a “plague” — Another one to remember from the plagues on Egypt. This one begins in Exodus 10.
- Monkeys: a “barrel” or a “troop” — So that’s why that game was called Barrel of Monkeys.
- Owls: a “parliament” — This term is sensible given the owl’s association with wisdom and intelligence. It was probably quite a compliment to the owl to be associated with human politicians when the term was coined, but now it might be more of an insult.
- Penguins: A group of penguins on land may be referred to as a “colony,” a “rookery,” or a “waddle;” while a group of penguins floating in the water is called a “raft.”
- Rattlesnakes: a “rhumba” — This one just makes me think of robot vacuum cleaners.
- Ravens: an “unkindness” — This name makes good sense since ravens have similar connotations to crows — not to mention how “unkind” their call is to the ears.
- Seagulls: a “squabble” — Makes perfect sense, especially if you’ve ever seen seagulls “squabbling” for a piece of food.
- Tigers: an “ambush” — “Ambush” is an accurate description of a tiger’s hunting methods, which often involve stalking its prey and hiding in the bushes before a swift surprise attack.
- Toads: a “knot” — Toads are so lumpy that they do sort of bring to mind a knot in a tree or log.
- Vipers: a “generation” — In Matthew 23:33, Jesus called out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees and asked them, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”
- Vultures: A group of vultures is called a “committee” when resting, a “kettle” when in flight, and a “wake” when feeding. Since they feed on carcasses, “wake” is a very fitting term.
- Worms: a “bunch” — I would have guessed “can.” Sorry, that was bad.
- Zebras: a “zeal” — Not sure what zeal has to do with zebras, but at least both words start with Z for easy recollection.
1Douglas Harper, “Venery,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed March 21, 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/venery).
2 Sarthak Chatterjee, “What Are the Origins of Bizarre Names for Animal Groups?,” Quora (Quora, May 24, 2015), https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-origins-of-bizarre-names-for-animal-groups?share=1).