As I was looking something up in my thesaurus I noticed in the back of the book a list of names associated with groups of animals. Among them were a shrewdness of apes, a sloth of bears, and a business of ferrets. Going online I found many more like a mob of emus, a lap of cod, and a trip of dotterel, which are European and Asian plovers. I didn’t know that either. Who came up with these strange names? Is it possible that a clandestine group commissioned by the government could have brought us something like this? Let’s step back into the murky past and see what one of these commissions may have been like.
The scene is a candle-lit meeting room in late 18th-century Philadelphia. The fledgling nation is doing all it can to distance itself from its former British masters and a group of founding fathers is reconvening after lunch. The chairman’s gavel sounds.
“Gentlemen, as you take your seats, I’ll remind you of the morning’s results of this Commission on Giving Weird Names to Groups of Animals, a sub-committee of the Congressional Council for Obfuscation of the British Language and Turning It Into Something Purely American.
“We began by finishing yesterday’s work on primates by naming a group of baboons a congress. A congress of baboons…I’m sure our leaders will appreciate that. We can only hope it doesn’t come true in the future.”
Howls of derisive laughter filled the room as the gavel sounds again. If only they knew.
“As we finished with primates we turned our attention to the sky to work on groups of birds and came up with a pitying of turtledoves, a watch of nightingales, a rafter of turkeys, an unkindness of ravens, a charm of goldfinches, and a gaggle of geese. That’s a good morning’s work, gentlemen. I hope we can be as productive this afternoon. First on the agenda is hawks.”
Llewellyn Wordsworth, the delegate from Boston yelled, “Kettle!”
“Very good, Mr. Wordsworth,” the chairman replied, “very good indeed”.
“No, Mr. Chairman, the tea kettle in the hearth behind you, it’s boiling. I was actually thinking of a haven of hawks–for the alliteration, don’t you know.”
“Another excellent choice, Wordsworth, but I already wrote down kettle, even though I was saving that word for fish. Perhaps we’ll come up with a fine use for kettle of fish somewhere else. A kettle of hawks it is. Crows is next. Does anyone have an…”
“Murder!” The shout came from a dark corner in the back of the room. “Murder, I say!”
Instantly the chairman gaveled the room to order as he demanded to know the identity of the speaker.
Into the light stepped Noah Webster who was working on the first American dictionary. Though not a delegate he was nonetheless a familiar figure in this chamber. He had been protesting this commission since its founding. “I apologize for another outburst, Mr. Chairman, but I could hold my tongue no longer. Gentlemen, as you well know, I’m trying to write a dictionary of the American language, a language you are murdering with these ridiculous definitions. With every wreck of this bird or prickle of that rodent I have to edit and edit again. I’ve rewritten my book three times. At this rate I won’t get it done until 1828 already. Can’t we just say a bunch of crows or a group of crows, or even just some crows and be done with it?”
The chairman had had enough. “Screw your dictionary, Mr. Webster. I’ve a good mind to use this gavel upside your head. A bunch of crows? That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. You’ve interrupted these proceedings for the last time. Bailiff, remove Mr. Webster and make sure he stays out.”
As he was being shown the door, Webster shouted, “You are murdering the language. It’s murder, I say, murder.”
“I’ll give you murder,” yelled the chairman. “I’ll…hmm, yes, yes I will. I’ll give you murder, Mr. Webster, a murder of crows that is. That should confuse generations to come and they’ll have none other than Noah Webster the great lexicographer to blame. Next item, sheldrakes.”
Sheldrakes, a species of Old World duck, went on to become a doading. And so the commission met until every group of animal was named. Some were named alliteratively, like a wisdom of wombats. Other groups were connected with what they do, e.g. an intrusion of cockroaches or a mischief of mice. When all else failed the commission invented words, as in a nide of pheasants or a chine of polecats.
Per his prediction, Noah Webster, after a multitude of revisions, finally published his master work, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828. He never did receive that chairman’s gavel upside the head.
Did it really happen this way? Except for Mr. Webster’s dictionary, no one knows. Maybe it sounds silly but no sillier than a clowder of cats or a rhumba of rattlesnakes or a fever of stingrays.