What do hunting and sexual desires have in common? We could point to several things, but from a linguistic point of view, we’re referring to the archaic word venery, which means both hunting (from the Latin venor) and sexual desire (from Latin veneria, referring to Venus).
Strangely, terms of venery is a collective noun that means a group of animals. And, many of these animal groups have colorful, fanciful names: a murder of crows, a covey of partridges, a clowder of cats.
Many of the group names can be traced back to The Book of Saint Albans, published in 1486, about angling, hawking, and hunting. The book is attributed to Juliana Berners who gave animal groups imaginative yet oddly appropriate names. Berners, who had an intimate knowledge of wildlife, may not have intended these names to be taken seriously, but they were repeated through the ages and are now commonly used. Here are a (hilarious) few.
1. A flamboyance of flamingos
A flamboyance of flamingos is a colorful and appropriate name for what scientists call a flock of the pink birds. It also seems that Berners had a penchant for poetry and liked alliteration, based on this one. The adjective flamboyance means “strikingly bold or showy,” and for these social birds that range in color from light pink to bright red, we think it’s properly descriptive.
2. A lounge of lizards
Perhaps, Berners observed some lizards lounging in the sun when she coined this one. Lizards tend to be territorial and use sit-and-wait hunting strategies. And, interestingly enough, the term lounge lizard, coined in the early 1900s, is slang for a well-dressed man who hangs out in bars, cafés, and hotel lounges with the aim to seduce wealthy women.
3. A bloat of hippopotamuses
Hippopotamuses tend to live in a group, or bloat, of 10 to 30 animals led by one dominant male hippo. Bloat means “to become swollen with fluid or gas,” and hippopotamuses have barrel-shaped bodies that look, well, bloated. Clever.
4. A conspiracy of lemurs
Lemurs are small, long-tailed primates that live in trees on the island of Madagascar. They live in communities of a few to 25 individuals, and they work together—or conspire—to use warning signals to alert other members of pending danger. Lemurs also conspire together against predators using a technique called “mobbing,” in which the entire group attacks a snake. So, lemurs may lead to conspiracies—but with each other, they’re tight.
5. A convocation of eagles
A convocation of eagles sounds regal. The word convocation means a large, formal assembly of people. It typically refers to an important gathering. The US Fish & Wildlife Service asks: “What is more important than [a gathering of] the symbol of our country?” Interestingly, a group of alligators is also referred to as a congregation. Not as regal, but arguably just as important.
6. A smack of jellyfish
A smack is “a sharp slap or blow typically given with the palm of the hand as a rebuke or punishment.” And, that’s what it feels like when you suddenly get caught in a group of jellyfish. Ouch. Other collective nouns for a group of jellyfish are bloom or swarm. But, we think smack is most descriptive. Jellyfish can be found on shallow or deep ocean waters, and even beached jellies can smack you with their venomous and painful sting.
7. An obstinacy of buffalo
Try to make a large number of buffalo do something against their will, and you’re sure to come up against some obstinacy! Fun fact: in North America, both bison and buffalo refer to the American bison. That’s because buffalo are only found in South Asia and Africa. But in the US buffalo is used informally, as well as the word bison, which is preferred for more formal or scientific purposes. These remarkable animals have lived continuously in Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, since prehistoric times. So, we think they’ve earned the right to be obstinate and to refuse to change their actions just because we humans want them to.
8. An unkindness of ravens
Was it unkind to name a group of ravens an unkindness? Maybe, maybe not. These large black birds (not to be confused with crows) have coexisted with humans for thousands of years, yet some people regard them as pests. Ravens can damage crops and harm livestock. And, get too close to a raven’s nest and they may be unkind and attack you. However, ravens are among the smartest of all birds, gaining a reputation for solving complicated problems invented by scientists. Still, a raven has long been considered a bad omen because it’s a carrion bird associated with death and lost souls.
9. A business of ferrets
To understand why a group of these domesticated polecats, or weasels, are called a business, we need to consider the definition of the word business itself. Today, we commonly think of it as a commercial activity or one’s livelihood. But, the term comes from the Old English bisignes, meaning “anxiety,” and bisig, meaning “occupied.” While ferrets spend 14–18 hours a day asleep, they are active during dawn and dusk. When excited, ferrets do a “weasel war dance,” which is a frenzied series of hops sideways and backward, often accompanied by an arched back and a frizzed-out tail. We guess that would make one look pretty anxious.
10. A mob of kangaroos
We tend to think of a mob as a large crowd of disorderly people intent on causing trouble. Kangaroos live in mobs, or groups that can range from 10 to more than 100. The mob’s purpose is to prevent violence, and more specifically, to protect younger or weaker members of the group. Fun fact: the word kangaroo comes from gangurru, which is what the Australian Aboriginal Guugu Yimithirr tribe called a gray kangaroo.
11. A zeal of zebras
These flashy four-legged creatures are certainly attention-grabbing, and so fittingly is a zeal of zebra (also called a dazzle of zebras). Fascinatingly, some zoologists think these animals use their stripes as camouflage within their own herd. This confuses predators by making it difficult for them to target and track individual zebras that are part of a larger group.
12. A shrewdness of apes
When Berners came up with this one, shrewd meant “wickedness, evil or mischievousness,” but it’s now defined as “clever or astute.” We think the current definition is much more fitting for our friends, the apes.
13. A leap of leopards
In a clear case of borrowing an animal’s characteristics, a group of leopards is called a leap. On the other paw, snow leopards are very solitary animals, and there is no collective noun for them.