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A cluster, a bloat, a rabble and a mess!

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Everyone has heard of an army of ants or a flock of birds, but how about a pounce of cats? A business of ferrets, a bloat of hippopotamuses, and my favorite, a float of crocodiles!

A company of budgies hangs out at Willawong Station. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

It seems as if there are as many bizarre collective nouns as there are animals to describe. An ambush of tigers, a tower of giraffes, a gam of whales, a charm of magpies!

So, why do we have so many unique collective names for animals? I mean, do we really need to say “There was a gaze of raccoons on my porch this morning”? And is there anything scientific about these terms?

A mob of meerkats! Photo by Ryan Hawk/ Woodland Park Zoo.

Giving groups of animals a special name has been a tradition since the late Middle Ages. (Might explain dray of squirrels). A lot of the blame for these bizarre words was given to prioress Dame Juliana Berners, a nun and writer, who published an essay called The Book of Saint Albans in 1486.[i] Berners was the first woman to write a book about fishing and was an expert in heraldry, hawking and hunting in England. This essay contained a long list of special collective nouns for animals as well as a few silly words for professions, such as superfluity of nuns. The Dame obviously had a fabulous sense of humor and her habit of using lyrical, poetic and humorous descriptors has endured. 

Using terms of venery, collective groupings of nouns, in everyday conversation was made popular by gentlemen in the 16th century[ii], and being able to recite them was a mark of…well, of being fancy. There was really no practical use for these terms, other than impressing your cohort.

In zoology, terms of venery are not widely used because a lot of the groups are facetious. Instead, creating collective nouns for animals has become a popular game for wordsmiths, even today.

A camp of grizzly bears, (actually, a group of bears is usually referred to as a sleuth, but here Keema and Denali are indeed visiting camp during Bear Affair). Photo by Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo.

James Lipton’s book, An Exaltation of Larks describes how the game works. 
The terms of venery, Lipton explains, break down into six families: onomatopoeia (a gaggle of geese); characteristic (a leap of leopards); appearance (a knot of toads); habitat (a nest of rabbits); comment (a richness of martens); and error, which resulted from an incorrect transcription (a school of fish was originally a shoal of fish).[iii]
Next time you visit Woodland Park Zoo, look for a group of animals (or other living things) and see if you can think of a new term for their collective! We've thought of a few of our own, inspired by springtime at the zoo…

A care of keepers, a cuddle of cubs, a wonder of kids, a splash of penguins, a preserve of conservationists, a doo of poos, a blush of orchids and of course, an awesome of incoming otters

A preserve of conservationists! Zoo curator Dr. Jenny Pramuk and her band of Oregon spotted frog conservationists, at a release in 2011. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

A blush of orchids, to brighten your day! Photo by Kirsten Pisto/Woodland Park Zoo.

[i] Berners, Dame Juliana (1881 reproduction) [First published 1486]. The Boke of Saint Albans. Introduction by William Blades. London: Elliot Stock Retrieved 2011-05-27. 
[ii] Todd, Loreto; Hancock, Ian (1986). International English Usage. Psychology Press. pp. 133–134. ISBN 0-415-05102-9 Retrieved 2011-04-04.


Dave Wenning said…
A bloat of politicians
A rumple of geeks
A lounge of lizards
(not originals)