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
MEDIEVAL NAMES FOR ANIMALS
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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Update: June 2012