Have you ever seen one of those lists of odd terms for groups of animals, like a “crash of rhinos,” a “siege of herons” or a “business of ferrets”? And did you perhaps think “What utter bullshit. Most of these were probably made up on the spot by whatever smartass wrote this list, and are never used in any other context.”
Me too! But today, driven by the reappearance of this trope in a recent pub quiz, I looked up the origin of these lists:
The tradition of using “terms of venery” or “nouns of assembly” — collective nouns that are specific to certain kinds of animals — stems from an English hunting tradition of the Late Middle Ages… In the course of the 14th century, it became a courtly fashion to extend the vocabulary, and by the 15th century, this tendency had reached exaggerated proportions… The focus on collective terms for groups of animals emerges in the later 15th century…
Even in their original context of medieval venery, the terms were of the nature of kennings, intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication.
So, in other words, they were written by smartasses for no purpose other than showing off. Given that, what’s really interesting is how many of them have become standard, like a school of fish, a flock of sheep or a flight of swallows. To anyone learning English as a second language, these words must seem like cruel jokes, with no purpose other than to add complexity. And it sounds like that’s pretty much exactly what they were.
I had to look up “kenning” too:
KENNING: A form of compounding in Old English, Old Norse, and Germanic poetry. In this poetic device, the poet creates a new compound word or phrase to describe an object or activity. Specifically, this compound uses mixed imagery to describe the properties of the object in indirect, imaginative, or enigmatic ways. The resulting word is somewhat like a riddle since the reader must stop and think for a minute to determine what the object is… Kennings were particularly common in Old English literature and Viking poetry. The most famous example is hron-rade or hwal-rade (“whale-road”) as a poetic reference to the sea…
Kennings are less common in Modern English than in earlier centuries, but some common modern examples include “beer-goggles” (to describe the way one’s judgment of appearances becomes hazy while intoxicated) and “surfing the web” (which mixes the imagery of skillful motion through large amounts of liquid, amorphous material with the imagery of an interconnected net linked by strands or cables), “rug-rats” (to describe children), “tramp-stamps” (to describe trashy tattoos), or “bible-thumpers” (to describe loud preachers or intolerant Christians).
Those last two seem like the best analogies for terms of venery, because there’s an in-joke element to them, a shared cultural context and a bit of class snobbery. So when someone tells you today that the proper term for a group of wildcats is a “destruction,” imagine someone 600 years from now saying that bible-thumper is the proper term for a preacher. The surface level of the joke has survived (a group of wildcats could obviously be destructive) but its full context has been lost.