Have you heard a murmuration – perhaps the murmuration of a herd? Is there rationality in murmuring? Lovers may murmur to each other, but when many may murmur the murmuration is not only a heard phenomenon but a herd phenomenon. One responds to the next responding to the next…
It can be a rum thing. Something coherent can be split apart and partially turned, as an m turned into an r and an n and then the n turned to a u and switched around; or unconnected things, u r, come to be construed as joined m. No single clear voice speaks up so all can hear; nothing calls back to ration, so it remains the unseeing hearing herd of the murmur nation. Who is in the herd? U r, among others. And the sound all around is not really “rhubarb, rhubarb” as some would render it; if you have a large number of friends over, get them all to murmur murmuration at the same time and see whether it doesn’t sound just right. And perhaps a bit creepy.
But, then, is it a herd, really? A herd is made of animals. We might discern it better among birds. And among words for birds. Consider: we do well enough with school for a group of any of many different kinds of fish, and with herd for several kinds of animals, but there are among us those who are unsatisfied with standard flock as applied to birds. Oh, there is fun in fancy: it is enjoyable to speak of a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, a watch of nightingales, a parliament of rooks, and (this would have changed the complexion of ’80s music) a wreck of seagulls. But the problem comes when someone murmurs that you are wrong if you use flock. These fanciful words, in truth, have (with just a few exceptions) always been just that: fancies. Toys. They ought not to be made into bludgeons.
It is true that among humans, the herd determines the use of the word, but individuals have influence, and sometimes they have quite a lot of influence. A medieval nun appears to have invented many of these words for bird herds, which are first seen – the whole flock of them – in The Book of St. Albans (1486). Thus these words were set, but mostly they are barely used, except among the murmuring set.
And when they are used, new flights of fancies, or just fancies in flight, may attach themselves to them. Consider the starling. The collective for starlings (other than flock, of course) is very rarely used: murmuration. (Yes, the word originally means “act of murmuring” or “continuous murmuring” – and also (though no longer) “spreading of rumours”. And murmur has apparent onomatopoeic origins in its Latin source.) But it happens that starlings can do something rather startling, a fascinating demonstration of complex dynamics: in places such as Otmoor, near Oxford, where large numbers of them come together at day’s end, there is a huge, fluid swooping, quite amazing to see, as thousands and thousands of birds make mass shapes that swirl like a sideways lava lamp sped up several times. They do this because each one is reacting to the ones near it, and they all have some particular pragmatics to follow relating to their role in the group hierarchy and their desire – and relative right – to go where they are safer. There is no one bird saying, “Hey, you guys, the old males come here, and the females go around there, and the younger males go over there.”
You can see this phenomenon in quite a few videos; my favourite is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=XH-groCeKbE. Another is at www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/02/murmuration-starlets_n_1072687.html (note that the URL erroneously has starlets – but it’s the correct URL). But the Huffington Post writer at the latter has taken the exotic act and assigned it the exotic word: “A murmuration, which this is, consists of thousands of tiny starlings (birds) collectively flying and swirling about.” So now it seems, to this writer – and to his readers – murmuration is not simply the word for a flock of starlings but is the word for this remarkable flocking behaviour.
We may say “Fair enough”: there’s already a perfectly good word for a flock of starling – flock – and there hasn’t to this point been a word specifically for this thing that large numbers of starlings do that happens to amaze a lot of people. But whether we like the semantic shift or not, it’s happening; given that the article on the Huffington Post has been “Liked” by over 36,000 people (as of this writing) and shared, tweeted, and emailed by almost 20,000, I think we can assume that each one of those people will take from the article – and pass on again by word of mouth – the word mumuration as referring specifically to this act (and may come to use it not as a murmuration of starlings but as starlings engaged in murmuration).
One bird turns, and the rest follow; one writer murmurs murmuration to this person and that, and they all follow. Of course, since it’s in a published article, it is in a way as though one bird had given direct instruction to the many, but since most people who read it likely found out about it through friends rather than simply turning every day to HuffPost to see what lexical updates to assimilate, effectively the article is the word that is murmured, not the voice murmuring it.