A collective cry

Monday’s (12/13) Wayno/Piraro Bizarro, with five crows — one of them speaking on a cellphone — in conference:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

The puns. The strip works through two interacting puns: the murder pun and the call pun.

The murder pun turns straightforwardly on an ambiguity of the noun murder: ‘a killing’ vs. ‘a flock (of crows)’.

The call pun is more complex. First of all, for most English speakers, it’s an imperfect pun, involving the noun /kɔ/ caw (NOAD: ‘the harsh cry of a crow or similar bird’) vs. the noun /kɔl/ call, in two senses (NOAD: 2 ‘the characteristic cry of a bird or other animal’, 3 ‘an instance of speaking to someone on the phone or attempting to contact someone by phone’). Then, sense 3 of the noun call is the one involved in the idiomatic compound prank call that’s played on in the cartoon’s title, Prank Caw:

noun prank call: a mischievous phone call made to trick someone: someone made a prank call to the police | she received a prank call by a caller claiming to be Russia’s president.

Murders. From OED3 (March 2003) on murder n.2 ‘a flock (of crows)’ and its history:

Etymology: Origin uncertain; probably the same word as murder n.1 (perhaps alluding to the crow’s traditional association with violent death, or, as suggested in quot. 1939, to its harsh and raucous cry).

[1st cites from ca. 1475; then revived in the 20th century. The 1939 cite suggests that the crows are crying “Murder!”; two more recent cites:]

1992 A. W. Eckert Sorrow in our Heart v. 320 Chiksika absently watched a murder of crows flying in ragged, ungainly pattern in the distance.

1994 Beautiful Brit. Columbia Fall 14/2 A murder of crows squabbles for roosting rights atop a ponderosa tree.

(#2) A murder of crows (photo from the Guardian: Bunhill/Getty Images)

On this blog. Three relevant postings.

— from my 2/18/12 posting “Gay venery”, setting the scene:

A term of venery, or venereal term, is a group-specific collective noun (like pride in a pride of lions). The early terms of venery were for animals; the word venery comes from Old French, earlier from Latin, based on the verb meaning ‘to hunt’ (the other sense of venereal, having to do with love and sexual desire, has a different etymology).

There’s quite a tradition of unearthing unusual and obsolete terms of venery (a murder of crows), for entertainment, and another tradition of inventing fanciful ones (an anthology of pros, for prostitutes); see Michael Quinion’s page entitled “precision of lexicographers”.

(It seems that actual birders don’t use the terms of venery, but rely on ordinary English collectives, especially flock, which is the default collective for birds.)

— from my 7/8/13 posting “A murder!”, on the ambiguity in murder:

(#3) [AZ, today:] A Pearls Before Swine strip — about, deliciously, prank calls and murders

[from the 2013 posting:] If only Pig had chosen to report “Crows have been murdered” or “Someone’s been murdering crows”!  Instead, Pig used the noun murder with of crows as its complement, and ran afoul of an ambiguity in the result: murder is also a term of venery, a collective noun specific to a particular group (in this case, crows)

— from my 5/12/14 posting “On the verge of a collective”, with a photoon raising the question of how many crows it takes to constitute a murder:

(#4) This attempt at a murder, with only two crows, is clearly insufficient

The crows in #2 are certainly enough. But what about the five crows in #1? Oh, a borderline case.

Borderline cases: the paradox of the heap. Some collective nouns come with specific cardinalities for their referents: a quintet has 5 members, a minyan 10. Some collectives refer to large cardinalities: mob, swarm — applicable in #2, not in #1. Some refer to vague but small cardinalities: handful, smattering — so they’re clearly applicable to #1, maybe even to #4. Some refer to a range of cardinalities, but at the lower end of the scale, even down to 3 or 4: cabal, gang. But many, though specialized semantically in other ways, seem to be general collectives: flock and, yes, terms of venery like murder. Their cardinalities can go very high: flocks of millions of birds — passenger pigeons, notably — have been reported. For these collective nouns, the question is how low they can go.

Suppose we have a group of 10 crows: clearly a flock, though a small one. At the other end, a pair of crows is not a flock. Now if remove one crow from the group of 10, we still have a flock, of 9 crows. If we keep removing crows, one by one, eventually we’ll get down to 2 — not a flock — and then 1 — not even a group (in the everyday use of group). When did things change from flock to not a flock?

This is a famous, and venerable, puzzle, which has turned up (at least) twice before on this blog.

— in my 7/27/13 posting “Heaps of fun”:

Dinosaur Comics from a few years ago (passed on by Bert Vaux), on the Paradox of the Heap:


— in my 3/22/18 posting “The meaning of “is””:

(#6) To φ Or Not To φ (Daily Nous Philosophy Comic) by Tanya Kostochka

you really have to know something about the philosophical tradition. From Wikipedia:

The sorites paradox (sometimes known as the paradox of the heap) is a paradox that arises from vague predicates. A typical formulation involves a heap of sand, from which grains are individually removed. Under the assumption that removing a single grain does not turn a heap into a non-heap, the paradox is to consider what happens when the process is repeated enough times: is a single remaining grain still a heap? If not, when did it change from a heap to a non-heap?

… This paradox can be reconstructed for a variety of predicates, for example, with “tall”, “rich”, “old”, “blue”, “bald”, and so on. Bertrand Russell argued that all of natural language, even logical connectives, is vague

#2 alludes to the variant with the predicate bald.

As heap goes, so goes flock (also collective murder).

A sociophonetic note. Way above, I wrote:

for most English speakers, [the call pun] is an imperfect pun, involving the noun /kɔ/ caw … vs. the noun /kɔl/ call

In fact, for a fair number of modern English speakers, it’s a perfect pun: for these speakers, caw and call are homophones, thanks to the vocalization of the /l/ in call.

From Wikipedia on L-vocalization:

a process by which a lateral approximant sound such as [l], or, perhaps more often, velarized [ɫ], is replaced by a vowel or a semivowel.

… extensive L-vocalization is a notable feature of certain dialects of English, including Cockney, Estuary English, New York English, New Zealand English, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia English and Australian English [also African American English and many Southern varieties of American English], in which an /l/ … occurring at the end of a word … or before a consonant is pronounced as some sort of close back vocoid: [w], [o] or [ʊ]

In many of these varieties, the phoneme /ɔ/ is realized phonetically with a close back offglide already, so the effect of L-vocalization for /ɔl/ is to make it sound identical to /ɔ/. So call sounds like caw.

2 Responses to “A collective cry”

  1. John Baker Says:

    Actually, I think the call/caw pun is sort of funnier for being imperfect. A too perfect pun sometimes isn’t as effective. For example, consider the brothers who called their ranch Focus, because it was where the sons raise meat. If told aloud the pun would probably not even be noticed.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      With really artful perfect puns you get an effect like those visual illusions where your perception of the figure toggles back and forth between two interpretations. With really artful imperfect puns (Elizabeth Zwicky and I used “With fronds like these, who needs anemones” as the subtitle of our article on imperfect puns), you get the pleasure of suddenly connecting different things, or of solving a clever puzzle.

      I am in fact very fond of artful imperfect puns.

      The label “imperfect pun” is unfortunately subject to misinterpretation as a value judgment — as if you’d tried for a good pun, couldn’t make it, and settled for this instead. But like their half-rhyme cousins, they’re an art form on their own, with their own pleasures. (As for labels, I can’t think of one that wouldn’t be subject to misinterpretation.)

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