NATURAL WORLD

On ‘gatherations’: a caravan of camels and a hug of teddy bears

By Don Pinnock 24 November 2020

Murmuration (Image Don Pinnock)

Sitting around a campfire after a day’s game-watching, beers in hand, talk often turns from what was seen that day to how to describe creatures in clusters. Here’s some information that could bag you admiration and a free beer.

It began, evidently, long ago and with animal poop. Gentlemen hunters in 14th-century France needed to identify the droppings of their prey in terms not considered coarse. The invention of new words caught their fancy and extended to what was termed “gatherations” of both humans and animals.

Early that century, a book called L’Art de vénerie by a huntsman, Guillaume Twici, listed three types of droppings and three terms for animal clusters. One Gaston Fébus extended this to seven in a hunter’s guide named Le Livre de chasse. By the time the name game reached Britain as a pamphlet by a Mr Egerton in 1452, there were 70 gatherations.

The Boke of Seynt Albans – written by Dame Juliana Berners in 1486 to instruct “gentill menn and honest persons in the arts necessary to an English gentill mann” – pushed the number to 165.

Vénerie also threw in suggestions for human “nouns of assembly” such as a blast of hunters, a subtlety of sergeants and a superfluity of nuns.

The Boke of Seynt Albans added a clutch more, such as a Doctryne of doctoris, a Sentence of juges, a Fightyng of beggers, a Melody of harpers, a Gagle of women and a Disworship of Scottis.

Seynt Albans is, amazingly, still in print.

It’s hard to imagine that these collective nouns were important as scientific or practical communication. Rather, they marked the erudition of a gentleman who could be judged by his “kennings” – the ability to use humorous and courtly language.

Often the “assemblies” made better alliteration than good sense.

Starlings put on a display as they gather in murmurations on October 20 2020 in Gretna, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“Gatherations” were given a boost through Britain’s increasing exploration and conquest of previously “unknown” parts of the world. Africa’s extraordinary creatures were simply made for the job.

The accounts of explorers – travel writers all – became bestsellers to a public hungry for fabulous tales of strange places and exotic creatures. The writers of these tales, many of whom made their income from the sale of exploration diaries, competed to describe unimagined wonders in ever more elaborate language.

In this atmosphere, nouns of assembly flourished like weeds.

The advent of the internet has given the ponder of gatherators new life and there are websites where people are invited to submit new collective nouns. It leads to arguments, showmanship and plenty of chuckles.

This has taken the sport beyond hunted creatures to ourselves, and given us many new-look collective nouns such as a tedium of golfers, a pity of prisoners, a fidget of altar boys, a giggle of girls, a ponder of philosophers, a flunk of students, a gossip of relatives and, one I particularly like, a hug of teddy bears.

So here’s a fun sample from a list that has grown to more than 1,000 and a tradition that began more than 600 years ago:

  • a shrewdness of apes
  • a congregation of alligators
  • a sloth of bears
  • an obstinacy of buffaloes
  • a rumpus of baboons
  • a cloud of bats
  • a bellow of bullocks
  • a rainbow of butterflies
  • a caravan of camels
  • a pounce or clowder of cats
  • a coalition of cheetahs
  • a yap of chihuahuas
  • a peep of chickens
  • a rake of colts
  • a gulp of cormorants
  • a bask of crocodiles
  • a murder of crows
  • a cowardice of curs
  • a kennel of dogs
  • a piteousness of doves
  • a weyr of dragons
  • a paddle of ducks (on water)
  • a convocation of eagles
  • a parade or memory of elephants
  • a busyness of ferrets
  • a charm of finches
  • a skulk of foxes
  • a wedge of geese (in flight)
  • a journey of giraffes
  • a trip of goats
  • a whoop of gorillas
  • a rasp of guineafowls
  • a husk of hares
  • a boil of hawks
  • a prickle of hedgehogs
  • a siege of herons
  • a bloat of hippos
  • a cackle of hyenas
  • a fluther of jellyfish
  • a kindle of kittens
  • a desert of lapwing
  • an exaltation of larks
  • a leap of leopards
  • a tiding of magpies
  • a stud of mares
  • a mob of meerkats
  • a mischief of mice
  • a labour of moles
  • a scourge of mosquitoes
  • a barren of mules
  • a parliament of owls
  • a yoke of oxen
  • a pandemonium of parrots
  • an ostentation of peacocks
  • a parcel of penguins
  • a nye of pheasants
  • a kit of pigeons (when flying together)
  • a wing of plovers
  • a turmoil of porpoises
  • a piddle of puppies
  • a drift of quail
  • an unkindness of ravens
  • a crash of rhinos
  • a parliament of rooks
  • a rookery or bob of seals
  • a host of sparrows
  • a scurry of squirrels
  • a stench of skunks
  • a murmuration of starlings
  • a sounder of swine
  • an ambush of tigers
  • a knot of toads
  • a hover of trout
  • a rafter of turkeys
  • a turn of turtles
  • a blessing of unicorns
  • a gam of whales
  • a destruction of wildcats
  • implausibility of wildebeest
  • a knob of wildfowl
  • a drift of wild pigs
  • a rout of wolves
  • a gatling of woodpeckers
  • a herd of wrens
  • a dazzle of zebras. DM/ML

If you want to see one of the most amazing gatherations on earth…

Murmuration from Islands & Rivers on Vimeo.

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All Comments 7

  • I think that (in this modern world) a Parliament of Owls is being unkind to Owls, and even to Ravens. I’d like to add “A deposit of bankers”. Bruce Danckwerts CHOMA Zambia.

  • Hi Don – What a beautiful word “murmutations”
    My own addition is a “proliferation of cairns” as people unnecessarily mark paths in our mountains. Sometimes dangerously incorrectly when they themselves are off-route.

    There is also a “proliferation of cairns” on the summit of Towerkop – left by ascensionists as their own monuments to the ego.

  • DM168

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