A 'Shrewdness' of Apes and Other Odd Group Names

Photo: Tambako the Jaguar / CC

Most people know that when lions get together they form a pride, and that if you get enough fish in one place its called a school -- but were you aware that a group of ravens is known as an unkindness? Actually, there's a bevy of bizarre names for animal groups -- in fact, a bevy is what multiple otters is called.

But where did these terms all come from?

Well, it's thought that just one woman born in the 14th century came up with nearly all of the collective nouns we use today when talking about groups of animals. And although many are commonly known, chances are there's still a few you've never herd of. I mean, heard of.

Many of the animal group names used in English can be traced back to texts from 1480, collected in the Book of St. Albans. This book contained several essays which discussed a few popular sports at the time -- angling, hawking, and hunting. Unfortunately, the essays didn't credit the authors, but one surviving book mentions a mysterious woman named Juliana Berners as having written "her boke of huntyng", the content of which included a long list of clever group names she is thought to have coined.


While very little is known about Berners, scholars believe that she came from an affluent family and was taught to enjoy hunting from a young age. Those field sporting skills combined with a deftly way with words and an intimate knowledge of wildlife made her particularly skilled at giving animal groups names that, while often a bit bizarre, sound oddly appropriate.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, Berners' fanciful, funny, and spectacularly imaginative names were probably never intended to be taken very seriously -- but they soon ended up repeated by other writers in antiquity until they stuck, in many cases to the point of becoming academically applied terms among biologist and poets alike to this day.

Some of these group names just seem to make sense; a flutter of butterflies, for example, requires no explanation. Nor does a swarm of bees, for that matter.

A parliament of owls, on the other hand, seem to have quite a befitting title for their rather dignified air. And crows, too, have a group name which seems to match their menacing appearance -- they're known collectively as a murder. Come to think of it, those majestic lions do seem rather proud.

Clearly, Berners had a penchent for poetry.

With such vivid descriptors like an ambush of tigers, a wisdom of wombats, a memory of elephants, a crash of rhinos, a prickle of porcupines, a cackle of hyenas, an intrusion of cockroaches, a skulk of foxes, a tower of giraffes, and an army of frogs -- such animal groups aren't merely alive, they're truly dynamic as well.


Here's a few more great group names:

a congregation of alligators

a sloth or sleuth of bears

a wake of buzzards

a destruction of wild cats

an aerie or convocation of eagles

a business of ferrets

a troubling of goldfish

a bloat of hippos

a smack or brood of jellyfish

a leap of leopards

a lounge of lizards

a dray or scurry of squirrels

a descent of woodpeckers

a heard or zeal of zebras

It's hard not to commend Berners for beginning a tradition of naming animal groups with a bit of levity that carries on to this day. After all, one monkey can be quite comical, but a barrel of monkey is downright hilarious -- and that's an acceptable way of referring to them.

So remember to lighten up, because obstinancy is for buffaloes, quite literally.

A longer list of animal group names can be found here.

More on Names in Nature
How Planet Earth Got its Name
How Nature Inspired the Alphabet
How an American Bird Got the Name 'Turkey'

Tags: Animals