July 30, 1999
Gina Duclayan wrote:
I've been told that the proper word to indicate a group of crows is "murder." There is even a new straight-to-video Cuba Gooding Jr. movie titled "A Murder of Crows." However, I've looked in several dictionaries and never found "flock of crows" as a definition for the word, whereas under the similarly used word "pride" one definition given is usually "a group of lions." What gives? And, anyway, how did "murder" come to mean "flock of crows"?
What gives is that there is a chasm between collective nouns that are commonly used and collective nouns that are repeated as examples of humorous or unusual words.
A collective noun is a noun that is singular in formal shape but denotes a group of referents. These are also called group nouns. Sometimes, usually in grammatical discussions, collective noun is also used to refer to plural-only words such as people or cattle.
Most collective nouns are familiar to everyone, such as a flight of stairs, a swarm of bees, a flock of sheep, a school of fish. These words generate little interest; they are the usual words one uses to refer to a group of the thing in question. (Note, though, that the school in "a school of fish" is a different word from the school where one goes to learn.)
The ones that people care about are the fanciful words that are vanishingly rare in actual use. An Exaltation of Larks is a prime example, promoted especially by James Lipton's book of the same title, which is recommended to those with an interest in the subject. The reason that most dictionaries include entries for a pride of lions but few do for a murder of crows is that many people really use pride to refer to a group of lions, but "a murder of crows" is limited to sentences of the sort, "Do you know that a group of crows is called a 'murder'?"
Some other examples are an unkindness of ravens, a shrewdness of apes, and a piteousness of doves.
Many collective nouns were first recorded in the late-fifteenth-century Book of St. Albans, by Dame Juliana Barnes, or other works of that era. Antiquarians picked up and added terms to such lists.
When I'm in a good mood I find interest in such collective nouns harmless, but most of the time it's something I rather dislike, chiefly because people attribute some mystical quality to these unused terms, as if we can tell something about human nature by knowing that the collective noun for a group of sheldrake is a dopping. Still, interest in them persists, and somewhere on an Internet near you, someone RIGHT NOW is trying to tell you the "fact" that a group of dentists is called a "wince," or a group of critics is called a "shrivel," or even that a group of hairdressers is called a "swish."
"Some are in wider usage than others," helpfully notes one such Web site.
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