In business jargon, a “herd of cats” is a group of employees who are difficult to manage. Getting them to work together is like trying to round up a bunch of felines that are prone to dash off suddenly. Herd is one of our go-to collective nouns in contemporary English. We tend to favor a few terms, such as group, flock, and pack, and apply them broadly.
For language aficionados, though, a group of cats has been a clowder from the 15th century to the present. Clowder is an odd word that comes from a Germanic root meaning “lump.” In English, it turned into clot and clod (a congealed mass of liquid or earth, respectively), which, in Yorkshire dialect, became cludder (“clowder” is an alternate spelling). A clowder of cats is thus a sticky mass of them, clinging to your legs and tripping you as you go downstairs.
Clowder reflects a characteristic of cats – their tendency to get in the way – and many collective nouns follow this pattern, making a trait into the group name. This is how we get “a bloat of hippopotamuses,” “a crash of rhinoceroses,” and “an intrusion of cockroaches.” With these recent collective nouns, the connection between name and animal is clear to anyone who has watched a nature documentary or lived in a city.
Medieval examples, though, often presume a detailed knowledge of wildlife, especially of birds, that most contemporary city-dwellers no longer possess.
Fifteenth-century lists include “a deceit of lapwings” (these birds feign injury to lead predators away from their nests); “an exaltation of larks” (they sometimes sing while flying 800 feet into the air); and “a fall of woodcocks” (they migrate in groups and “fall” on new patches of ground like snow as they travel; alternatively, the term might refer to the males’ courtship dance in which they fly up into the air, then fall, spiraling, down).
Other collective nouns are based on the sounds creatures make. “A cackle of hyenas” is a recent coinage. Medieval ones include “a wauling [howling] of cats” and “a mute of hounds.” Dogs were not somehow silent in the Middle Ages – this sense of “mute” derives from root words meaning “riot” and “quarrel,” an apt way to describe the baying of hounds. Geese were thought to make a noise something like “gag gag,” so a group of these birds became a “gaggle.”
Some scholars argue that a “murder of crows” is also part of this group. It first appears in 1450 as “a mursher of crows,” which philologist John Hodgkin takes to be an onomatopoeic rendering of crows’ cawing. I have never heard a crow make a noise like “mursher mursher,” so I would say that it is a misspelling of “murder,” and that crows received their ominous group name because they are scavengers.
What do you call a group of collective nouns? A column.
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