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A murder of crows

Q: When my wife and I grew up in Monmouthshire in the UK back in the ’40s and ’50s, a common collective noun for crows was “murder,” as in “a murder of crows.” Please comment on the origin of this usage.

A: The term “murder” was used to describe a flock of crows as far back as the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (Here’s a spine-chilling version from 1475: “A morther of crowys.”)

But the OED cautions that this usage is “one of many alleged group names found in late Middle English glossarial sources.” In other words, it might have been some glossary writer’s fanciful invention, rather than a legitimate expression in common use in the 15th century – like “gaggle of geese” or “pack of dogs.”

But why a “murder”? The OED suggests this is an allusion to “the crow’s traditional association with violent death” or “its harsh and raucous cry.” If you’ve ever heard dozens of agitated crows in full cry, it really does sound as if they’re yelling bloody murder.

This whimsical usage, which apparently died out after the 1400s, was revived in the 20th century, but as far we can tell it has never been commonly used in reference to a group of birds.

We’ve done some birdwatching over the years and have never heard birders use those terms in a serious avian discussion.

The first modern citation in the OED comes from 1939, but the usage was undoubtedly popularized by its appearance in An Exaltation of Larks (1968), a compendium of “nouns of multitude” by James Lipton.

Some of the group nouns (they’re called terms of venery) in that book and its successors are actual archaic terms.

The one in the title, for example, dates back to the 15th century. “A exaltacion of larkes” (from Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep, circa 1440, by John Lydgate).

Others (like “parliament of owls”) are more likely to be modern inventions, though “parliament” has been used since the 14th century for a congregation of things: fowls, birds, fools, bees, women, masts (on a ship), and rooks, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the title and opening line of “Parlement of Foules,” a poem by Chaucer, believed written around 1381.

The poem, which describes a gathering of birds to choose mates, begins this way: “Here begyneth the Parlement of Foules”

Interestingly, the OED’s first recorded example of “Valentine’s Day” also appears in that poem:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make” (“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird comes here to choose his mate”).

But the association of “parliament” with owls didn’t appear until much later. The earliest example we’ve found is from “Chicago a Thousand Years Hence,” a 19th-century poem by James Newton Matthews.

The poem, which describes a crumbling cathedral, appeared in the June 12, 1886, issue of The Current, a Chicago weekly magazine. Here’s the relevant passage:
Look on it now! the stately edifice,
That once was palpitant with prayer and praise,
Re-echoes to a parliament of owls,
That perch, by night, upon the shattered stones.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) includes many collective nouns for animals under its entry for “flock.” But keep in mind that some of them are found only in very old compilations and may have had little or no existence aside from these lists.

Since Lipton’s very popular book and its successors appeared, the naming of groups of things has become something of a game with his many fans. While these inventions aren’t legitimate historically, some of them are quite imaginative and even beautiful. A favorite of mine: “a chandelier of hummingbirds.”

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 24, 2022, Dec. 31, 2023, and Jan. 1, 2024.]

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