Terms of Venery by Gary D. Crawford
Now i m a g i ne t h i s. T he ye a r is 1354 . We are in Br itain, sitting together with a gathering of friends as they enjoy some wine and conversation. One of the young fellows, Thomas, says with a tinge of complaint, “Say, did you know that godfather Sir William corrected me today? He said I shouldn’t say ‘pair’ or ‘couple’ when referring to my two greyhounds.” “What’s the correct ter m?” inquired James. “Well,” replied Thomas, “according to Sir William, every gentleman knows that two greyhounds are a brace.” They all take a sip, digesting this news. James then asks, “I wonder what one calls a bunch of those nasty crows that are ruining our crops at t he moment? Be a st lylooking black things!” After another pause for thought, Thomas offers, “How about a murder of crows?” The party erupts in laughter, as everyone agrees that a murder of crows is just perfect. Like ravens and magpies, crows are loud, rambunctious, and intelligent. Farmers treat them as pests because they devour their seedlings. Crows are sometimes feared, even loathed, because people tend to associate their black feathers with death.
Now here’s the curious thing. That really happened. Of course, I don’t know the year, or what the fellow’s name was, but somebody did make it up. The silly term got passed along from household to household until it became the accepted term a mong gent lemen. Before long, to say a “f lock” of crows was very bad form, for it revealed one’s poor upbringing. One mark of the gentleman (and gentlewoman) was using the right word when referring to groups of animals. A great number of such terms were invented. They were called “terms of venery,” from the Latin venator (huntsman), venatorius (pertaining to a hunter), because they originally dealt with animals involved in hunting, whether the hunters (dogs, horses) or the prey (deer, pheasants). These invented terms referred to some observed characteristic of the animals in question, either their appearance or their habits: a Swarm of bees, a Descent of woodpeckers (from their tendency to land all together), a Surge of mallards (a rising-up), and many others. The number of terms grew and multiplied. Eventually, it became necessary to write them down.