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Murder of Crows? The Oddities of Collective Names

A gaggle of geese. A murder of crows. A parliament of owls.

 

Given enough time, virtually every hobby develops its own bizarre vocabulary — wacky insider terms that sound absolutely alien to normal people. To say that someone “hit four sixes in an 18-ball 39” sounds like a ludicrous math problem, unless you’re wise to the jargon of cricket. Instructing someone to “raise pressure foot and pivot” could result in bodily injury, unless that someone is a quilter. It’s true that every generation has its lingo, but so does every worthwhile hobby.


Birding is no exception, especially when it comes to the use of collective nouns. After all, when describing groups of birds, why just settle for the word “flock”? Why not expand your horizons, stretch your creativity, engage your thesaurus?

 

And so, in English nomenclature, we speak of a pandemonium of parrots. A flamboyance of flamingoes. A commotion of coots. A bellowing of bullfinches. A mischief of magpies. Silly? Absolutely… and we’re just getting warmed up, bird nerds.

 

Some bird flocks are given ominous names, worthy of feature scenes in a Hitchcock movie. A conspiracy of skimmers. A siege of herons. A banditry of titmice. A mob of emus. A gang of turkeys. A wake of vultures. A deceit of lapwings. And yes, a murder of crows (Crow flocks are also sometimes referred to by the equally ominous name… Congress).

 

Other species have flocks named for negative experiences, possibly evoked by the birds themselves, but more likely indicating that some birders need clinical counseling. A piteousness of doves. A trembling of finches. A confusion of chiffchaffs. A lamentation of swans. An unkindness of ravens. Uhhh, please, have a seat on the sofa and tell me about your childhood.



Some flocks are indicative of the sorts of things that inevitably happen when dysfunctional work teams gather: A quarrel of sparrows. A scold of jays. A scream of swifts. A screech of gulls. A middle-school cafeteria of puffins. Yes, I made that last one up.

 

Other flocks are named for more aspirational qualities. A charm of finches. A gift of robins. A crown of kingfishers. An ascension (or even an exaltation) of larks — balanced in the scales by a descent of woodpeckers.

 

And then there’s the words that are so left-field that, were you to use them in a public setting, all other conversation in the room would suddenly cease. A curfew of curlews, for instance (What time exactly? And what happens if the birds are late?). A museum of waxwings (complete with a gift shop?). A mutation of thrushes (Stephen King's next thriller?). Or if you’re in a metaphysical mood, what about an omniscience of godwits, a contradiction of sandpipers, or my personal favorite — an invisibleness of ptarmigans? This is the sound of one hand clapping.


A parliament of (burrowing) owls

It turns out that this peculiar jargon is over 500 years in the making. In 1486, just 40 years after the invention of the printing press, a unique compendium was published from St. Alban’s Abbey, only the third printing press in England. It was called (predicably) The Book of Saint Alban’s, but with the subtitle Treatyses on Hawkyng, Huntyng, and Cote Armours. In the likelihood that you don’t speak Canterbury-Tales, think of it as the “Three H’s” — hawking, hunting, heraldry — A.K.A. falconry, hunting, and the presentation of coats of arms. These were the hobbies that supposedly marked a gentleman of the 15th century, along with “Fysshynge with an Angle" (fishin'), which was added as a fourth essay in a later edition.


(attempted murder)

In the section on hunting, the author provides a long list of collective nouns for animals. Apparently if you’re going to shoot something, it’s good to have a word to describe what a lot of them look like before you decrease their population by a few. And when you’re telling your story back at the lodge, maintaining your rank in nobility means making sure you get your descriptors right. Saying “We came upon a flock of pheasants this morning” is far too unsophisticated. The other aristocrats in their hunting breeches would chuckle at you disdainfully and say, “No, silly chap, you mean to say that you came upon a bouquet of pheasants this morning.” The others would no doubt pile on with a tally-ho or huzzah or something like that, and you would be soundly humiliated (in the most gentlemanly way, of course). Ahhh, the ignobility of nobility.

 

And so, when someone asks you why we call a flock of geese a gaggle, it might be best to say that five hundred years ago a bunch of silly English lords sat around medieval manor houses making up ludicrous names for things, and they would probably find it humorous to discover that, thanks to the Gutenberg press and the Book of Saint Albans, some of their ideas actually stuck.

 

The Sunday Flock

 

What do you call a group of people gathered together? The answer is often setting-specific: on a playing field it’s a team, in close proximity it’s a crowd, in a Wild West saloon it’s a posse, in a zombie apocalypse it’s a horde. When more formally assembled, we use terms like league or club or cohort or squadron. Each term means something a bit different, and they aren’t conveniently interchangeable (try calling your quilting club a horde and see if you’re invited back).

 

When a group of believers gathers at church on a Sunday morning, the same reality is in effect. Well-meaning people often refer to this gathering as an audience. But consider the  inadvertent assumptions that are attached to that word. We define audience as “the group of spectators or listeners at a public event.” That’s all well and good for a concert or a TED Talk, and a lot of the same elements are often present: stage, microphones, singers or speakers, rows of seated guests. But the term audience is intentionally passive. In an audience, the people on stage perform, and the rest of us… well, we watch.

 

The job description for the assembly of the saints is built around a far nobler purpose. Yes, there is an audience for worship — but his is an audience of one. Before his throne we are all active performers, engaged participants. Those who may find themselves “on stage” on any given Sunday are privileged to lead the charge, but without usurping the role. Through the songs picked and the prayers recited, worship leaders and pastors get to literally put the words of worship on the lips of the people. There’s no room for passivity on a Sunday morning. We all stand before the matchless Audience of One, and when the moment is over we would do well to judge the worship not by the quality of the sermon or the pitch of the vocalists, but by what we brought to the throne, and how our heart engaged the moment.

 

The Book of Saint Alban’s has a better word for a church collective. It’s a word used to describe a flock of plovers, cranes, ibises, puffins, and sometimes eagles — the word congregation. The definition exhorts us to something less passive and more active: “an assembly of persons brought together for common religious worship.” Congregation intends a purpose besides just spectating. If you see yourself as part of the audience, you may enjoy the performance. But if you see yourself as part of the congregation, you’ll be drawn into the performance, to let it shape you.

 

When it comes to naming groups of things, some words are admittedly ridiculous — remnants of an old book that thought “an ostentation of peacocks” and “a kettle of hawks” were good ideas. But some words have the power to shape you. The next time you gather up with your church, let me exhort you to ditch any aspersions of “audience.” Instead, may you and your fellow congregated saints join your voices and hearts, before the Audience of One.


A congregation of puffins (© iStock)


3 Comments


Oh, and the attempted murder photo joke is hilarious!

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So well written. Entertaining and insightful. Being engaged in the congregational experience is essential to authentic worship.

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Another great read. However, the phrase "contradiction of sandpipers" didn't seem to sit right. It made my mind wonder about what type of pipes sandpipers pipe on. Maybe bagpipes? In that case would the phrase "cacophony of sandpipers" be a better descriptive? Thanks again for inspiring me to congregate more at church.

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