Collective nouns, also known as nouns of assemblage, nouns of multitude, group terms, terms of venery, and veneral nouns, are words used to define a grouping of people, animals, objects or concepts. We use many without a second thought:
An array of magazines.
A batch of cookies.
A crowd of people.
A bevy of options.
A collection of coins.
A bouquet of flowers.
A string of pearls.
A school of fish.
As perfunctory or generic as some may be, like group or bunch, many of the nouns used for collectives convey meaning. A batch, whether cookies or car parts, indicates something made or manufactured. A string of pearls, insults, or lawsuits suggests a number in succession. Cleverly assigned collectives such as “an idiocy of drunks” or “an embarrassment of teenagers” colorfully illustrate circumstance, behavior, or character. Creating apropos nouns of multitude has been the pleasure of writers for hundreds of years. Though some will find their place in dictionaries for future reference, most will not.
venery – “hunting, the sport of the chase,” early 14c., from Old French venerie, from Medieval Latin venaria “beasts of the chase, game.”
For animals, many terms of venery, like “a crash of rhinos,” date back to the 15th century. The longevity of these classifications rests in part on their repeated publishing over the centuries. Such terms have present-day authority in that they’ve been attested in numerous documents and dictionaries over time. They are not, however, compulsory. A “flock of crows” will (blandly) serve the collective-noun purpose if murder is not to your liking. When speaking of giraffes, there’s no sense in arguing whether a tower, a corps, or a herd should take precedence as all are acceptable.
In their original context, medieval vernery developed terms that had a very practical intent: to classify animals, their droppings, and the noises they make. The earliest known hunting treatise on these topics is from the mid 1200s by the Anglo-Norman writer, Walter Bibbesworth. The Venerie of Twiti is another Anglo-Norman treatise that named only three different terms for herds of animals.
Throughout the 1300s, veneral terms were translated from French into English and were intended as a mark of erudition for the English gentleman who used them correctly. It became a fashion in the courts to creatively expand the vocabulary. By the 15th century, this “fashion” had reached exaggerated and even satirical proportions.
It was in this period that Juliana Berners, a Benedictine prioress of the Priory of St. Mary of Sopwell, published the Boke of Seynt Albans (1486) and introduced “the compaynys of beestys and fowlys.” Her translations of French treaties on hunting and hawking included a whopping 164 terms of venery as well as humorous human classifications. The “boke” was very popular and became a requisite read for gentlemen of the nobility. Over the centuries, the title was repeatedly edited, printed, and scrutinized for authenticity. Five hundred years later, we still find great appeal in Ms. Berner’s “asylum of loons,” and “unkindness of ravens.” Her tongue-in-cheek human groupings, like “a sentence of judges,” “a blast of hunters,” and “a gaggle of women” continue to convey a sardonic medieval wit.
So, whether you’re writing for classification or fiction, one’s assemblages can be colorfully termed. The license of the poet is yours.
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