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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 usage, which apparently died out after the 1400s, was revived in the 20th century. 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, and some (like “parliament of owls”) are more likely to be inventions. The term “parliament,” for example, has been used since 1400 to describe a congregation of things: fowls, birds, fools, bees, women, masts (on a ship), and rooks, according to the OED. But not until Lipton’s book does it appear in association with owls.

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.”

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