An Elocution of of Etymologists: Nouns of Assembly or Terms of Venery

You’ve probably heard of collective nouns for animals like a herd of cattle or a murder of crows—or perhaps…

  • a prickle of porcupines
  • a flamboyance of flamingoes
  • an ambush of tigers
  • an exaltation of larks
  • a dazzle of zebras

These are called nouns of assembly or terms of venery, where “venery” is a word for the sport of hunting (from the Latin venari meaning “to chase or pursue”).

Venery is also a word for the pursuit of sexual pleasure, and it was used with great intention as a double entendre in 15th century hunting culture.

Many terms of venery are first recorded in the 1486 Book of Saint Albans, (a.k.a. The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms) which was a gentleman’s handbook of hawking and hunting. However, it is thought by some historians to have been written by a woman—Juliana Berners, a nun who wrote many treatises on hunting and field sports. (Others debate or contest the attribution to Berners.)

The book contains about 150 collective nouns, including what may be the first recorded instances of phrases like “gaggle of geese” and “pride of lions,” and “litters” of baby animals, terms meant to be imitative of the behavior of the animals they describe.

It also lists common and fanciful terms such as:

  • a peep of chicks
  • a leap of leopards
  • an unkindness of ravens
  • a murmuration of starlings
  • a shrewdness of apes
  • a skulk of foxes
  • a sleuth of bears
  • and many, many more.

And it doesn’t stop at animals: It includes terms like a “melody of harpers,” a “blast of hunters,” a “sentence of judges,” a “subtlety of sergeants,” and a “superfluity of nuns.”

If these sound funny, it’s because they’re supposed to. They were all part of the wordplay and banter of gentlemen’s hunting culture, and it was a mark of your knowledge as an experienced hunter to be able to name all of the collectives.

If your profession or hobby had a noun of assembly, what would it be?

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