A Slueth, An Unkindness, and A Murder…

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March 28, 2013 by Ray Yanek

crow

As an English teacher, a writer, and a reader, I’ve obviously always loved words.  I love their sound and their power; their tone and their emotion. I love how they can wield a brush and create beauty, how they can brandish a sword and shred.

Words are the necessary components to the spells we cast every day.

Yet despite our familiarity with words, they remain shrouded in an atmosphere of mystery.   Words are far older than we are.  They have danced on the tongues of the ancient and they have secrets and mysteries they reveal only to those who care to recognize that fact.  Words hold secrets, you see.  They have histories, various identities, and secret lives.

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One of my favorite blogs belongs to Renae Rude–The Paranormalist. Her site is beautiful and creepy, elegant and atmospheric.  She writes about (among other things) the strange and spooky stuff I sometimes crave.A week or two ago, she posted a piece relating how her local news “did a story about the Hitchcockian number of birds gathering in [her] city.”  Intrigued, she took her camera and went out in search of these murders of crows.

A murder of crows…

It was a phrase I’ve heard thousands of times, a phrase I’ve often viewed with interest and curiosity.

Why that term for these black birds that sit high in the trees and stare down at us with tiny, obsidian eyes?

I suddenly wanted to know.

The English language is full of poetic and quirky collective nouns used to refer to groups of animals.  According to Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, most of these collective names spawn from mannerisms exhibited by the animals.  For example, the phrase used for a flock of ravens, “an unkindness of ravens”, references a legend about ravens pushing their young from the nest. (see here for a more thorough discussion). Other collectives are more mysterious, a “knot of frogs” for example, or my personal favorite a “sleuth of bears”. Some meanings are obscure, if not lost or forgotten all together.  A ‘murder of crows’ is one such term.

A few theories concerning the origin of the term popped up enough to warrant consideration and I’ll present those ideas here.

The Etymological Approach:

According to the website Take Our Word for It (an endeavor of the Institute for Etymological Research and Education) James Lipton, in his Exaltation of Larks, dates the term “murder of crows” back to 1450 where it first appeared as a “mursher of crowys”.  By 1476, the term had evolved into the more recognizable “murther of StillLifeWithCrows_412crowes.”

Some believe, however, that the evolution from “mursher” to “murther” was less an evolution and more a faulty translation or recopying.  The researchers of the website were unable to find any other evidence of “murder” being spelled as “mursher”. It’s also quite possible the spelling error occurred in the 1450 version as the researchers offer no definition for the word ‘mursher’.

Some do suggest, most notably John Hodgkin of the Philological Society of London, that “mursher” could have been used as a term to convey the sound of the crows cawing.  I have to credit the comment section on the blog of Marja-Leena Rathje for giving me the impetus to look up Hodgkin.

They Mythological Connection:

Crows are always associated with death.  This symbolism stems both from the crows color and its connection to the Irish goddess Morrigan, the goddess of war and, well, death.  According to Irish legends, Morrigan would assume the form of the crow and fly over the battlefield.   No doubt this Feast%20For%20Crowsmyth arose from the preponderance of crows that would swarm over ancient battlefields looking to scavenger the corpses of warriors.

In other stories Morrigan would appear in her crow form as an omen of a warrior’s impending fall in battle.

Obviously, the connection to death is clear here, but the legends talk about the crow’s connection to death in battle, not death through homicide.  Thus, at least in my mind, this doesn’t quite fit as reason for referring to a collection of crows as a ‘murder.’ 

The Ornithological Approach:

For centuries, people have reported witnessing a ‘crow court’.  During this phenomenon crows gather in empty areas and encircle one individual crow.  Much squawking and ruffling of feathers ensues, leading to one of two outcomes: 1.) the crow in the middle is left alone and free to fly off, or 2.) the rest of the crows attack the crow in the middle and kill it.

No doubt, this would resemble the “murder” of a crow.

Which contains a story entitled "A Parliament of Rooks".

Which contains a story entitled “A Parliament of Rooks”.

This explanation is plausible and it does seem to meet Quinion’s criteria for naming mentioned at the start of this post.  Some argue however, that the interchange between the birds has been referred to as the “parliament of rooks”, or the collective term for the English rook which is in the same family as the crow.–At first, I suppose I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t nail down a clear meaning for the term “a murder of crows.” I was a little disappointed that the phrase didn’t carry a cool reference similiar to that in an “unkindness of rooks.”

But the unknowing seems more fitting perhaps, the mystery more in tune with that enigmatic bird.

So what about you?  What are your favorite collective nouns that we can add to the list consisting “a murder of crows”, “a slueth of bears”, and “an unkindness of ravens?”

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