On a bitterly cold and dark morning last week, long after the last club goers had staggered home and before the commuters began heading to work, I saw a murder right in the center of Piata Unirii, the main square in downtown Cluj-Napoca.
It was a brazen thing, committed right in the center of the square, which could’ve easily been witnessed by people. But there were no people – only I. It was a loud, raucous affair and I covered my ears at the sound of it.
So why wasn’t it reported in the news, made into a top story on every channel?
Probably because I’m the only person walking around in the pre-dawn cold who remembers that a thousand years ago, the lords of Normandy, speaking what is now an archaic form of French, conquered England. And these lords, in the age before television, the internet or even theatrical plays, had one past-time that they loved above all others: hunting.
It was their all-consuming passion, done in all weathers and all seasons as it relieved the tedium of sitting around in their wet, drafty castles in the miserably rainy island they now ruled. And it had the added attraction of being somewhat dangerous. In fact, King William II, the son of William the Conquerer, was killed during a hunting expedition.
If you speak Romanian, you know that the verb a vana means “to hunt”. Likewise in English we have inherited something called terms of venery from those long-dead Norman rulers, meaning “hunting terms”, both words coming from the Latin (venetus).
In short, those Norman hunting fanatics devised special words for groups of animals, known now as “collective nouns”. This is why it’s often confusing to learn English because there are special words for different groups of animals.
Some of these are archaic (not used anymore) and some are still used in every day English:
A flock of birds, sheep, goats
A herd of cows, horses and most other four-legged mammals
A pride of lions
A drove of pigs
A troop of apes, gorillas, monkeys
A colony of bats, ants, termites, wasps, beavers
A swarm of bees, flies, other flying insects
A school of fish (sometimes whales)
A pod of dolphins, whales
A pack of dogs, wolves, coyotes
A gaggle of geese
A covey of doves, pigeons, partridges
A murder of crows
A parliament of owls
A lovely of ladybugs (UK: ladybirds)
An exultation of larks
A knot of toads, frogs
A clowder of cats
A wake of buzzards
A squabble of seagulls
A horde of hamsters
A scolding of (blue) jays
A nest of vipers
A trip of goats
A skulk of foxes
A bevy of deer
A farrow of pigs
A prickle of porcupines
A sneak of weasels
A scourge of mosquitos
A glint of goldfish
A bask of crocodiles
A shoal of fish
And in case you ever need to know this, a group of unicorns is called a blessing.
So as it turns out, there’s a murder just about every morning in the downtown square, a murder of crows that is, who gather by the thousands in the pre-dawn cold to engage in noisy fellowship before dispersing to do whatever it is that crows do in the winter.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!