Biodiversity and literature: Why is it a "parliament of owls" and other such collective nouns?

I was listen to the radio as we were coming to the lab this morning, and one of the things that caught my ear was a quick mention of collective nouns. Now these are instances where there is a special and specific term that is coined for a group of things. Wiki describes it as follows:

In linguistics, a collective noun is a word used to define a group of objects, where "objects" can be people, animals, emotions, inanimate things, concepts, or other things. For example, in the phrase "a pride of lions," pride is a collective noun.

Then it kind of struck me that this sort of thing is most commonly seen when referring to things related to biodiversity, and I guess I got curious as to why that was.

I mean, who came up with phrases like "a parliament of owls" or a "knot of toads" (which, by the way, I think are perfect)? And maybe just as fun, if you were a zoologist or a botanist, and you happen to discover something totally new and novel in the kingdom of life, do you get to embellish the English language further by making up your own collective nouns?

Anyway, wiki sheds a little light on the matter by highlighting a reference that looks like it could be interesting:

Hodgkin, John. Proper Terms: An attempt at a rational explanation of the meanings of the Collection of Phrases in "The Book of St Albans," 1486, entitled "The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys" and similar lists., Transactions of the Philological Society 1907-1910 Part III, pp 1 - 187, Kegan, Paul, Trench & Trübner & Co, Ltd, London, 1909.

And whilst on the hunt for this paper on the internet, I came across this great piece of academic writing.


Bonus is that you can download the whole thing from here (if your university has an institutional subscription), which is where things get really interesting.

Basically, the paper outlines a variety of texts over the years where lists of collective nouns were provided. Furthermore, historically it seems as if most of these terms (which are often referred to as "terms of venery) come from a hunting, British, or French and aristocratic background.

What's wonderful about the paper is that, although 15 pages long: only 2 and half is the primary text, another 2 and a half is a list of these terms of the venery, and then the remaining 10 or so pages are detailed footnotes with particular information on specific collective nouns.

Here's a few great samplers:


It's all rather pretty really, and I wonder what would it take for newish "terms of the venery" to come about. I mean there could be countless cool ones for the various prokaryotes.

Sooner or later, something needs to take hold of an "awesome of..." title.

More like this

I'd run into this stuff decades ago and was baffled by it.

Here's how I see it now. There are two basic sources. One is hunting, where hunters came up with terms like 'a bevy of quail'. The collective terms for hunted game show up in very old dictionaries (and are documented in my OED) so I'm sold on this thinking.

The other source is poetry, and this yields all the terms for non-hunted species. (Who is going to try to cook a wren?) Somebody pulled a phrase like "an exhalation of larks" out of a poem and began collecting. (I once saw the stanza of the poem that 'exhalation of larks' was taken from. I'm no poet, but the poem to me was unremarkable.) The collection grew, and there may have been additional contributors.

At some point the hunting terms and the poetic conceits got merged into a single list, and for some reason people take the whole thing seriously.

Take a look at "An exaltation of larks: Or, The venereal game" by James Lipton, a popular review of the issue published in the early 1990s. "Venereal" refers to "venery" AKA "hunting."

No discussion of collective nouns is complete without mention of the contribution of 20th Century comedy.

"Not the Nine o'clock News" introduced the term "flange of baboons" for comic effect but the phrase has since become used increasingly in popular language (instead of the historically correct "congress") and has even made it into the academic literature.

Just in case you wondered, the proper collective for zombies is "a vexation". See additional monstrous collectives at wondermark:

I have to admit, I loved this and instantly bought a poster. :P

Somebody pulled a phrase like "an exhalation of larks" out of a poem and began collecting.
basari hosting internet hizmetleri.
Web Hosting

"A Parliament of Owls" is a play on Chaucer's title Parliament of Fowls. As far as I know, it's a purely 20th century pun on the part of C.S. Lewis (a chapter title from one of the Narnia books).

By Steve Morrison (not verified) on 26 Nov 2009 #permalink

The British use of the collective noun of parliament is used for Rooks Corvus frugilegus. Owls being mostly solitary, even on migration, don't seem to rate it, and I suspect it is indeed a corruption of "Parliament of Fowls" as Steve Morrison has just mentioned.

So happy have the chance to access this blog, really whorthwhile, learned a lot!Thank you!

By fashion summer (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

That is "Parliament of Foules" "come up with" by Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century

Some of the things you read though are just plain silly, and made up on the spot. I once read some silly name for "kangaroos", yet it has always been and will always be "A MOB of Kangaroos"

By Eelyn Haskins (not verified) on 11 Feb 2015 #permalink

I am sure many of the fanciful collective nouns e.g. a parliament of owls, a congress of baboons, came directly from a children's book by writer/illustrator Brian Wildsmith, probably from the 60s or 70s. I remember reading it to early years classes. Anyone else?

By leonie kershaw (not verified) on 14 Oct 2015 #permalink

my husband came up with a good one....
"a wag of dogs"

By Dania de Jonghe (not verified) on 16 Dec 2015 #permalink

"a wag of dogs"

By David Moen (not verified) on 16 Dec 2015 #permalink