murder of crows [animal collective nouns -- Forum Mod.]

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murder of crows [animal collective nouns -- Forum Mod.]

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Feb 26, 2007 7:31 am

This is getting addictive! How about for a nationalities one 'a haggis of Greeks.'

I was just reading William Safire’s On Language column in today’s New York Times on the etymology of the infamous doughnut hole as it refers to the gap in Medicare Part D coverage, which I actually had the singular honor (well, me along with several million other people) of falling into in 2006. It begins as follows:
<2007 “On March 18, 1886, an anonymous reader of The Boston Globe wrote to the editor, ‘Can a man get fat on a diet of doughnut holes?’ The reader promptly answered his own question: ‘Doughnut holes can only be introduced into the stomach by swallowing the doughnut whole.’ Yuk, yuk, went the 19th-century editor, who then courageously printed the letter. This bit of history was provided to On Language by Fred Shapiro, bulldog editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, who set a javert of search engines whirring in responding to my query for the first printed use of doughnut hole”—‘New York Times,’ On Language, 25 February>
My immediate reaction was, “What’s a JAVERT?” So, naturally, I went to look it up in the dictionary and, it wasn’t there. I then did a search on JAVERT and found:
<“Javert: An officer of police, the impersonation [[sic]] of inexorable law in Lee Misérables [[sic]], by Victor Hugo”—Brewer’s 1898 ‘Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’> [[The SICs are mine, and there may be something I’m not aware of, but I have only seen it as Les Misérables, and I would think by ‘impersonation’ they mean ‘personification’ – but perhaps this is 1898 lingo.]]
Of course! Jean Valjean’s nemesis, police chief Javert. But why was Safire using this with a lower case? And then it hit me – the VENEREAL GAME. ‘A murder of crows.’ Police chief Javert – always searching, searching, searching! Safire had just invented a new venereal phrase with javert being coined as the required collective noun –“a javert of search engines.” A mite obscure – but not bad, once decoded, that is. (<:) And, considering we had just been discussing the venereal term, quite a coincidence at that!

Ken G – February 25, 2007
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Post by Dr Stevil » Mon Feb 26, 2007 11:39 am

Erm... why is the term venereal being used here? I've checked with the online OED ( and found only (as I would have imagined) the following:



. adjective 1 relating to venereal disease. 2 formal relating to sexual desire or sexual intercourse.

— ORIGIN from Latin venereus, from venus ‘sexual love’.

Perhaps the answer lies in the aforementioned book, The Veneral Game, but it still seems inappropriate.

As an aside, whilst it's true that flock, pod, school, shoal etc are used frequently, it's worth noting that not once during my years studying zoology and marine biology did I hear any scientist use the more exotic of the collective nouns. I think these are the sole preserve of the artistic community.
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Post by Bobinwales » Mon Feb 26, 2007 12:05 pm

Stevil, Ken’s original posting on this thread does explain why “venereal”, but I must admit that it looks bizarre to me, so I shall continue to call them collective nouns, which is what I have called them all my life. I will then save myself the bother of explaining to bewildered friends that venereal does have another, and more obscure meaning, it is not just galloping-knob-rot.
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Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

murder of crows [animal collective nouns -- Forum Mod.]

Post by Dr Stevil » Mon Feb 26, 2007 5:24 pm

Ah... Thanks for that, I'd skim-read it late at night and missed the detail

... ‘terms of venery.’ The last seems best and most appropriate, and itself warrants some explanation.

‘Venery’ and its adjective, ‘venereal’ ...
Hmmm... given that venereal has connotations which would not be helpful in applying that adjective when discussing terms of venery, I would have thought that this must necessitate a modified adjective in order to ensure clarity in the language, eg veneral instead of venereal.
I don't think I could bring myself to use the current adjective, a lexicophile I may be but one has to draw the line somewhere :D
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Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Feb 26, 2007 6:56 pm

I'm in agreement with Dr Stevil on this point. The connotations of 'venereal' are provocative to so many people that it seems sensible to aim for two respective forms for the sex-related and collective-noun-related adjectives, especially as deriving 'veneral' from 'venery' follows a conventional morphological pattern for English words.
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murder of crows [animal collective nouns -- Forum Mod.]

Post by gdwdwrkr » Mon Feb 26, 2007 7:31 pm

Me too. The word is doing its work, though, in that it is provoking much discussion, and drawing increased attention to the book.
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Feb 26, 2007 7:57 pm

DrS et al, Thanks for the comments. And me too! Venereal, with its awkward double meaning, is not a term I would use out in polite society either. But since the discussion was among participants who had presumably been following the conversation – much as one would follow the idiosyncrasies of a play during a night at the theater – Lipton's coinage was used more for fun than anything else (“Henceforth we are talking about terms of venery or—occasionally, judiciously—venereal terms”). Injudicious use of VENEREAL - not recommended! (&lt)

Ken G – February 26, 2007
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Post by Dr Stevil » Mon Feb 26, 2007 7:57 pm

Indeed! I've just ordered a copy (Hardback, used, £9, from Amazon) and I hadn't even heard about the book until yesterday, though I would still have bought it if it were called the veneral game ;)
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Post by gdwdwrkr » Mon Feb 26, 2007 9:11 pm

It is a beautiful book, and veneral would have required an explanation to me, too.
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Post by tony h » Mon Feb 26, 2007 10:50 pm

I don't wish to Poe-Poe Ken's quote:
Foul play engenders dreams of eating crow:

“On this home by horror haunted,—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”
I believe the drafts used parrot. A friend of EAP's suggested raven.
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I'm puzzled therefore I think.

murder of crows [animal collective nouns -- Forum Mod.]

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Feb 26, 2007 11:39 pm

Tony, Yes. And I’ve heard tell that the ‘N’ on nevermore was a printer's typo, so it was actually supposed to have been:

Quoth the parrot, Evermore.

I like it, and I think it would have been a better poem for it!

Ken – February 26, 2007
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Post by MamaPapa » Tue Feb 27, 2007 9:49 pm

I'll add that this topic has become an "epidemic of venereals"....
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Post by Meirav Micklem » Tue Feb 27, 2007 11:30 pm

or a chattering of wordwizards?
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun May 03, 2009 8:02 pm

When I read the following in the news last night I was mortified, absolutely mortified!:
<2009 “More than a week after the swine flu outbreak rattled the world, with cases of infected people popping up from Mexico to South Korea, the new virus strain has shown up in a herd of swine.”—, 2 May>
If CNN had any class at all and had read my above posting of February 2, 2007, they would have realized how pedestrian it sounds to speak of a HERD OF SWINE. Arthur Conan Doyle made it perfectly clear in his 1906 historical novel Sir Nagel that if they had any couth at all they would have referred to a bunch of porkers as a SOUNDER OF SWINE (never mind that it is mostly used to refer to a group of wild swine)

AN EXULTATION OF LARKS (3rd edition, 1991) by James Lipton

Quoting Doyle’s Sir Nagel (1906):
“The old knight shook his white head . . . ‘There is so much to be learned there is no one who can be said to know it all,’ said he. ‘For example, Nigel, it is sooth that for every collection of beasts of the forest, and for every gathering of birds of the air, there is their own private name so that none may be confused with another.’

‘I know it fair sir,’ . . . Answer me now, lad, how would you say it if you saw ten badgers in the forest?’

‘A cete of badgers, fair sir.’

‘Good, Nigel—good, by my faith! And if you walk in Woolmer Forest and see a swarm of foxes, how would you call it?’

‘A skulk of foxes.’

‘. . . Now, had it been boars . . .?’

‘One says a singular of boars.’

‘And if they had been swine?’

‘Surely it is a herd of swine.’

‘Nay, nay, lad, it is indeed sad to see how little you know . . . No man of gentle birth would speak of a herd of swine; that is the peasant speech. If you hunt them it is other. . . . What call you them Edith?’

‘Nay, I know not.’

‘. . . But you can tell us Mary?’

‘Surely, sweet sir, one talks of a sounder of swine.’
A SOUNDER OF SWINE [[14th century and still in use]]: This is one of those words that suffered some interesting sea-changes hopping back and forth across the English Channel. Originally it was the Old English word sunor, meaning herd. The Normans adopted it and it became Gallicized to soundre. Since Norman French was the language of all the earliest hunting treatises, and thus the principle source of hunting terms, the word returned to England as sounder, with the English none the wiser that they were borrowing back their own rake.

Here's some quotes from Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<circa 1410 “That men calle a trippe of tame swyne and of wylde swyne it is called a soundre . . .”—Master of Game (MS Digby 182) v>

<1598 “The first yeere he [i.e. the wild boar] is, a Pigg of the [ sounder.”—A Bbrefe Collection of the Lawes of the Forest by J. Manwooe, iv. page 25b>

<1632 “Skilfull Foresters and good Woodmen Doe vse to say, a Sounder of Swyne [etc.].”—Guillim’s Heraldry, III. xiv. (edition 3), page 177>

<1824 “I have never spoken of a sownder of swine or a sculk of foxes.] “—The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland by J.McCulloch, III. page 407>

<1840 “The noble sight of a fine sounder . . . breaking covert and scouring along the plain.”—Scenes and Sports in Foreign Lands by E. E. Napier, I. iv. page 115>

<1880 “Almost directly afterwards the whole sounder, of ten or a dozen, emerged into the open.”—Sword of Damocles by T. A.Tharp, II. page 219>

<1905 “If you ask me what should be done to check the cicades [[= cicadas]]? . . . I should in the autumn turn a sounder of swine into them. The animals would not only eat the windfall apples, the acorns . . . ; they would grub about the roots of the trees and devour the immature cicads . . . “—Pulp & Paper Magazine of Canada, page 154>‎ [[clearly not referring to wild pigs of the hunt]]

<1965 “Hence riding through the brush beside the watercourses in the home pastures our horses would shy violently as a semi- wild sounder of swine broke cover . .. “—A Nnot of Roots
by G. V. W. Portsmouth, page 24>

<2005 “The beaters came down through the last of the brush, making a lot less noise than they had when they were driving the sounder of swine, and the dogs with them set up a joyful of wuffing and leaping . . .”—The Protector’s War by The Protector's War by S. M. Sterling, page 443>

<2007 “Hog hunting a test of stealth and patience: . . . Getting within range of a sounder of swine, however, can be tricky because of their acute sense of smell. One whiff of a human and they'll disappear.”—The Record (Stockton, California), 9 May>
And I couldn’t help but noticing the term AN OSTENTATION OF PEACOCKS a few pages before the sounder of swine listing in an Exultation of Larks. What an apt description in a book filled many such fanciful, wonderful, and historical characterizations!

Ken G – May 3, 2009
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Post by trolley » Sun May 03, 2009 8:55 pm

I'm going camping next weekend with an "exaggeration of fishermen".
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