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TWTS: When you witness a murder ... of crows

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Have you ever noticed a group of birds and thought to yourself, “My, what a large murder of crows!”

Probably not. However, we do get plenty of questions about this particular collective noun, so we decided to look into it.

What we’ve found is that people have been fascinated by how to talk about groups of animals for centuries. It’s been a very playful space.

Some of the terms we use sound idiomatic and not at all remarkable to our ears. Things like “pack of dogs,” “swarm of bees,” and “flock of sheep” get used fairly regularly.

There are much more interesting terms to be had. For example, have you ever encountered a “parliament of owls” or a “mob of whales”? What about an “unkindness of ravens”?

Unless you’ve already researched collective nouns for animals, you’ve probably never heard anyone use any of these.

The first collection of these terms is in the Book of Saint Albans, which was first printed in 1486. It was extremely popular and was reprinted and revived over and over. Because of this, the terms stayed with people.

The book is divided into three sections. The section relevant to this discussion is called “hunting” and was written, we think, by a woman named Dame Juliana Barnes.

As Michael Quinion of World Wide Words points out, “Though some of Dame Juliana’s terms, such as ‘business of ferrets,’ ‘fall of woodcocks,’ and ‘shrewdness of apes’ are wonderful to read and have a certain resonance, nobody seems to have used them in real life.”

They may not have been used, but that doesn’t make these terms any less fun. Also, we feel it’s imperative that “business of ferrets” becomes a regular part of the language.

To hear more of our discussion, listen to the audio above.


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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.