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!?