During the middle ages, a specialised vocabulary became popular in the sport of hunting. Known at the time as ‘terms of venery’, we know them today as collective nouns.
One would display one’s credentials as a sporting gentleman by correct use of the terms and knowing that a flock of duck might be called a raft or a skein, depending on whether they were floating or flying, was essential. Unfamiliarity could cause one to be ridiculed amongst one’s peers.
As with jargon today, the venery terms became more outlandish as the fashion took hold and were used to exclude anyone who did not meet the desired criteria.
Most of the collective nouns would have been used to describe animals that were hunted for sport which is disturbing when one considers a Parliament of Owls for example, a Herd of Wrens or a Stand of Flamingos.
A few websites have compiled lists of collective nouns and as one might expect from hunting terms, they predominantly refer to animals, but it is not clear whether a Bench of Bishops pertains to religious leaders or African weavers. And it is by no means certain that an Observation of Hermits is not an account of Central and South American hummingbirds.
Many of them have been derived from contemporary literature or from the ‘game of venery’ and many have been absorbed into popular modern culture. An Exaltation of Larks is at the same time, a music album, a collective tribute to the English language in book form and a Facebook page.
But I am still foxed in finding a name for a group of Skylarks which was the reason for looking in the first place. Never having seen more than one at a time, I had not previously thought of them as flocking birds. In Hong Kong, I found a small group of 5 Oriental Skylarks and the field guide confirmed that they do form flocks during the winter, but gave no indication of the correct venery term. An Ostentation has already been assigned to peacocks (obviously) and Magpies have called dibs for a Tittering. I wonder if a Sussuration has been taken yet.
Looking over some of the lists raises a few questions.
Since the fashion was popular in the late 15th century, I assume that a Company of Wigeons refers to the Eurasian form. Would a separate noun be needed to describe the American or Chiloe Wigeons? A Fall of Woodcock would similarly be used to describe the Eurasian Woodcock. Might an Autumn of American Woodcock be apt?
As the terms of venery have their roots in hunting, is it not odd that swans have 12 group names to call on (from Eyrar to Lamentation). It was my understanding that swans were reserved for the King and should not be hunted.
Why would a Siege be used to refer to more than one Bittern? Who has ever seen more than one Bittern at a time?
A Bellowing of Bullfinches struck me as a most peculiar term. But these are very destructive birds and can cause great damage to fruit trees as they come into flower. Perhaps it is the fruit growers that do the bellowing when they see their crops being eaten.
Does a Bank of Dunlins apply when they are roosting on a sand bar, or when they turn in flight (actually, I just made that one up. Dunlins really come in a Fling)?
So come on let’s have some suggestions for a group noun for Skylarks. As we enter the Christmas weekend perhaps a Gift of Skylarks might do the trick.