A clowder of cats

… and a kindle of kittens

Am I really supposed to believe that the collective term for a group of cats is a clowder and for a bunch of kittens is a kindle? I accept on the other hand that a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep, and a pride of lions are real collective nouns.

Meaning of clowder

Clowder is an old synonym of clutter. It is apt, for groups of cats do tend to spread themselves around a room like too many cushions. Kindle has two meanings. The first is to set something on fire and the other is to give birth (in animals as well as describing the young animal). Although it is feasible that a group of cats is a clowder (also a group of cats can be called a glaring) and a group of kittens is a kindle there is reason to be suspicious.

Animal collective nouns

Words gain their legitimacy from common usage. The problem with many collective nouns for assemblages of animals is that they are seldom used except in trivia quizzes. For instance, as much as I would like to talk about the flock of crows on the church roof next door as a murder of crows I would be being too clever.

Some of the most unusual collective nouns in the long list are: a gulp of swallows, an ambush of tigers, a shrewdness of apes and a zeal of zebras. And talking of church, a group of alligators is a congregation.

The humour and alliteration in so many of these words would make you suspicious. They sound invented. A little investigation into their history shows why.

What is venery?

These collective nouns or nouns of assembly come from venery an English hunting tradition of the Late Middle Ages. Venery is very much like what in Anglo Saxon times was called kenning, a kind of poetic banter to test who was cleverest. Most of these collective nouns were first recorded in the Book of Saint Albans (1468) an early almanac recording the words as they were used in venery. The book has been quoted so often over the centuries that it can be considered almost solely responsible for most of these words. Most of the words were probably never in common usage.

Many of the invented collective nouns were revived and popularised by  An Exaltation of Larks(1968), a book explaining and listing “nouns of multitude” by James Lipton.

So, the great surprise when we start testing each other on these words is not so much that we are perpetuating the use of a set of archaic words but that we are, unknowingly participating in a 500 year old word game.