A Parliament of Owls

While watching the news yesterday, I was suddenly struck with an epiphany about the etymology of the word parliament.

I was watching the French-language Belgian news, specifically a story about Le Parlement Bruxellois. The similarity between the word parlement, and the French verb parler (to speak) was obvious. A parliament is a place where politicians go to talk together about important issues (insert clichéd joke about them talking all day and getting nothing done).

Parliament is also fairly well-known as the collective term for a group of owls. We use parliament in this way because owls have long been considered wise (insert clichéd joke about politicians these days not being wise). This goes back to at least Ancient Greece, when a little owl was usually depicted accompanying the goddess of wisdom Athena. There are different theories as to why exactly they’ve been considered wise, but most believe it’s due to their wide-eyed, seemingly watchful, thoughtful gaze, and ability to see at night.

The technical term for collective nouns for groups of animals, by the way, is terms of venery. These form part of a larger trend in the late Middle Ages of adopting specific hunting terminology from French. Probably to make the practice of killing animals feel more respectable, I imagine. I won’t list all the terms here, but I will look at a few of my favourites:

  • A shrewdness of apes: probably also because of the obivous intelligence of apes. Unsurprisingly, already taken as a band name
  • A destruction of wild cats: could easily also refer to some individual domestic cats
  • A gulp of cormorants: probably because of the way they gulp down fish in one go
  • A murder of crows: one of the best-known ones, with a few theories on its origin, ranging from their scavenging nature, their presence after a battle, and folk tales about crow “trials” in which the guilty “defendant” is killed by the others
  • An array of hedgehogs: makes me picture a hedgehog collector, proudly displaying his array of hedgehogs at a convention
  • A cackle of hyenas: quite appropriate
  • A kindle of kittens: Aw!!
  • A deceit of lapwings: obviously someone in the middle ages had a bad experience with a lapwing once and never got over it
  • A barrel of monkeys: what could be more fun?
  • A scourge of mosquitoes: they sure are
  • A bouquet of pheasants: Ooh la la!
  • An unkindness of ravens: probably due to the general distaste for crows
  • An escargatoire of snails: does such a thing even exist? Maybe two together is enough to be called an escaragatoire. How else are you going to get to use the word?
  • A bed of snakes: no thanks
  • An ambush of tigers: of course
  • A wisdom of wombats: they’ve never seemed particularly wise, but why not?

I feel like most of these were dreamt up by a bunch of drunken medieval hunters around a fire. Still, probably better than those clowns in parliament, am I right!?

31 thoughts on “A Parliament of Owls

  1. No doubt at all! The analogy between politicians and some super agile and dangerous animals fits the present day scenario. We can see a lot of furniture in many parliaments around the world disloged and thrown away. In more than one case it is thrown at each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s definitely the latter. We so rarely need to refer to groups of animals, and then we can still use “herd” or “flock.” I’m sure wealthy hunters in the middle ages loved to show off their knowledge of them though.

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  2. Loved this post! Always was intrigued by the fascinating terms of venery. A few of my favourites ones are: A quarrel of sparrows, a sleuth of bears, a congregation of alligators, a plague of locusts and a bloat of hippopotamus!

    Like

  3. My favourite is a convocation of eagles. Have also just found a charm of finches, a scurry of squirrels, a gaze of racoons, a knot of toads and a skulk of foxes.

    Such wild excess, though! What medieval peasant first thought to put unkindness and rooks together? They have the same shiver-down-the-spine effect on me as those subatomic particle names – quark, strangeness, bottomness/beauty, topness/truth. I suspect we are drawn to these unexpected flights of fancy – straying into poetry – when skirting around the edge of magic.

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  4. I’ve heard of a murder of crows but not the other ones! This is such important information! Also, Bubo is great and so is the original clash of the titans! I just got really excited when I saw that picture

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Niall i always learn something whenever i read your posts 😂 i lobe this post, never actually heard of many of those terms though everyone seems to be familiar with a murder of cows… How did i not know this! I found this far more amusing than i should of. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m partial to a good collective noun … It’s rare to see the more exotic ones in print, but every so often I come across an author who invented one that fits so well you almost don’t notice they snuck it in or if you do, it’s like—huh, wish I’d thought of that one!

    Liked by 1 person

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