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Medieval Names for Animals
Nature Bulletin No. 449-A   March 18, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The English language is a polyglot -- a confusion of several languages - - and it contains many words dating back to medieval times. Some of them are still in common use; some now have entirely different meanings; many have been forgotten; others are rarely heard but are defined, as archaic words, in the unabridged dictionaries. Recently the narrator on a television program, showing great numbers of wild beasts in Africa, used the expression: "a pride of lions".

An acquaintance remembered having seen it in "Sir Nigel", a novel about the days when knighthood was in flower, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who is famous for his stories about Sherlock Holmes. Searching through a copy of that book in a public library, we found two pages which contained many ancient terms for gatherings or numbers of animals, such as: "a pride of lions", "a cete of badgers", and a "swarm" or "skulk" of foxes.

We then consulted an Oxford Dictionary -- usually the best means of tracing a word back to its origin. There, again and again, we saw references to a rare old book which we finally found in the magnificent Newberry Library; "Sports and Pastimes of the People of England", by Joseph Strutt, published in 1801. In a chapter on Hunting Terms, he wrote: "There was a peculiar kind of language invented by sportsmen of the middle ages, which it was necessary for every lover of the chase to be acquainted with". We have selected a few of those curious expressions, using his style of writing.

When beasts went together in companies, there was said to be a pride of lions; a lepe of leopards; an herd of all sorts of deer; a singular of boars; a sounder of wild swine but a dryft of tame swine; a route of wolves; a harras of horses; a rag of colts; a baren of mules; a team of oxen; a drove of kine; a flock of sheep; a tribe of goats; a sculk of foxes; a cete of badgers; a nest of rabbits; a clowder of cats and a kyndyll of young cats; a shrewdness of apes; and a labour of moles.

Two greyhounds were called a brace and three a leash, but two spaniels were called a couple. We have also a mute of hounds for a number, a litter of whelps, and a cowardice of curs.

In the ancient sport of falconry, or hunting with trained hawks, there were other curious terms; a sege of herons or of bitterns; a herd of swans or of cranes; a spring of teels; a covert of cootes; a gaggle of geese, a badelynge of ducks; a muster of peacocks; a nye of pheasants; a bevy of quails; a covey of partridges; a congregation of plovers; a flight of doves; a walk of snipes; a murmuration of starlings; a host of sparrows; a watch of nightingales; and a charm of goldfinches.

There were many others -- such as a gam of whales, a dule of turtles a caste of bread -- and some very curious ones used for groups of people; a skulk of thieves, a stalk of foresters, a blast of hunters, a temperance of cooks, a wandering of tinkers, a blush of boys, a bevy of ladies, a gagle of women, and a nonpatience of wives.

Some of these medieval nouns may be found in Shakespeare's writings. Some are quite familiar but are used much differently nowadays in our common speech. Others are heard, in this country, only in the dialects of mountaineers in our Appalachian districts. Apparently the English language is changing all the time.

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