On the verge of a collective

The cartoon below came to me from several sources on the net (I don’t know its ultimate source):

Crucial background: murder is a “term of venery”, a collective noun used with very specific referents, in this case crows. (Ordinary collectives, like group, crowd, and in fact collection, can refer to referents of many different kinds.)

A murder of crows has come up in passing several times, as a memorable example of a term of venery; there is a more extensive discussion of the expression in this posting, on a Pearls Before Swine cartoon that turns on the ambiguity of the expression.

The cartoon above turns on a different question: how many crows does it take to make a murder of them?

Hundreds of assembled cackling birds certainly will do. Or a hundred. Or even a dozen. As the numbers decrease, things become less and less certain: four, I guess so; three, just barely; a single crow, clearly not; two (as in the cartoon above), I think not, though two crows do make a group. So the two crows above illustrate an attempt, not quite successful, at constituting a murder of crows: an attempted murder. And now we have the ambiguity again, with the legal expression attempted murder competing with the homophonous venereal expression.

A separate issue: what to call items like the captioned photo above. I’ve been using cartoon, even though it diverges in two ways from canonical cartoons: it’s a photo rather than a drawing; and its verbal component comes from brief captioning rather than conversation or narrative. That is, it seems to belong to the cartoon category, but it’s a marginal member of that category. (Some people might want a special label to pick out these marginal members as a group, but I see no point in the exercise.)

One Response to “On the verge of a collective”

  1. Joel Says:

    1) Maybe the missing two or three on the left, of the four or five originally present on the perch, were murdered. Are those white spots on the ground feathers?

    2) Crows can count up to about seven, IIRC. Perhaps only a “:group” of more than they can count should be called a “murder”?

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