A group of wolves is called a pack, a group of cats is called a clowder, and a group of dolphins is called a pod. Collective nouns can be pretty weird and nonsensical and have no fixed rules. But when it comes to a group of pandas, things get doubly weird.
A group of pandas is most commonly called an embarrassment of pandas, most likely due to their lovable and clumsy habits. But a group of pandas is also sometimes called a cupboard or bamboo of pandas, presumably because of their diet. But why are groups of pandas called this?
An embarrassing name
Just like with baby animal names (did you know a shark baby is called a pup?) the world of collective animal nouns is a bit of a jungle. There are no fixed rules for establishing them, no authoritative body that does it, and it’s pretty much whatever catches on. For some species, it sort of makes sense, or at least it’s become so common that it seems normal. But for other species, the names can be outright weird.
Take, for instance, the infamous “murder of crows.” You probably have that one friend who enjoys pointing this out or sent you the “attempted murder” joke, but why is a group of crows called a “murder”? Well… there’s no good reason. Crows are associated with gothic and dark symbolism and one logical leap later: a murder of crows.
Something fairly similar happened with pandas.
It’s almost like someone wants to ruin the good name of pandas by hinting at their clumsy nature but took it one step too far. But when you try and figure out where the name originates, there are few good leads.
We reached out to several lexicologists and linguists and panda experts trying to find answers. “It’s a good question!” one expert told us. “I would also like to know the answer.” Everyone told us they were familiar with the “embarrassment of pandas” but no one could shed clues as to where this term originated and why.
“I’ve had a word with our panda experts and they agree that there isn’t a universally accepted group name for giant pandas, unfortunately,” one spokesperson from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland told us. “They’ve heard both ‘a bamboo’ and ‘an embarrassment’ used, but as I say there’s no universally accepted group name.”
Who would have guessed that the cute, lovable, popular pandas hide such a deep mystery?
So we took another route: the internet.
When it comes to mentioning the name for a group of pandas, book after book and study after study follows the same pattern: they note the collective noun for pandas as a curiosity and make brief, evasive remarks on its origins (or don’t mention its origins at all).
We also couldn’t find out where it originated.
The oldest online reference you can find on the internet comes from a 1999 website that builds “jeopardy-like games” — so presumably, it’s been around for more than two decades since it was listed as a reference, but maybe not much more than that.
This contrasts with some of the other collective animal nouns. A murder of crows, for instance, can be traced back to poetic language in the 14th and 15th Centuries. This could, however, be linked to the later contact that the English language had with pandas. The average English speaker in the 14th century would have been familiar with crows but would have had no idea what pandas are. Even so, “specialized” collective nouns don’t seem to be all that popular.
We couldn’t trace the name’s origin to a single source, either. It just seems that somehow, organically, it caught on.
It makes a bit of sense since pandas are known for their sometimes clumsy movements and cute, silly gestures. They’re also known for their “lazy” mating, which makes breeding in captivity very challenging. All this probably led to the association under the “embarrassment”. Since pandas spend 10-16 hours a day feeding on bamboo, a notoriously poor nutritional source, the “bamboo of pandas” also probably caught on.
It’s not as surprising as you’d think. Words constantly adapt and emerge, and languages aren’t set in stone. In today’s interconnected world, that happens particularly quickly and lawlessly — linguists don’t set the rules, they just observe what’s happening and how words are used. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains:
“Today’s lexicographers are describers of English rather than lawmakers. The definitions they write are based on evidence from thousands of collected texts — newspapers, scholarly journals, teen magazines, text messages — and from transcriptions of the spoken word.”
Collective nouns are no exception. No authority sets the rules, they just catch on organically. “Who decides on the right collective noun for something? The short answer is no one,” the same Oxford English Dictionary reads.
Sometimes, these words take off, like in the case of “a pride of lions” in the 1930s, when most people seem to have started going with it. A “murder of crows” seems to be on the rise, so it could become dominant.
Maybe an “embarrassment of pandas” will also take off, although for now, there’s not enough data to see a long-term evolution. So instead, we looked at online references. Google Trends suggest that actually, the most popular way to refer to a group of pandas (other than “a group of pandas”) is actually a “bamboo of pandas” — not an embarrassment.
So while an “embarrassment of pandas” sounds pretty cool (though not if you’re a panda), it may not be the way to go. If a “bamboo of pandas” is more popular, and popular words become more established, then the bamboo seems on the rise. However, time will tell whether this is actually the case. Based on what we’re seeing online, the “group of pandas” seems to be the one getting more popular.
An absurdity of pandas
In our valiant but ultimately fruitless crusade to find out where the name for a group of pandas originated, we found that such a name may even not make sense. Pandas are solitary creatures that don’t really spend much time in groups. A spokesperson from a panda charity that preferred to remain anonymous, explained that pandas are essentially never found in groups.
“I am not sure there is a true scientific name for a group of giant pandas since they are solitary animals. The only times they interact with each other are during the breeding season and when a mother gives birth to a cub. The majority of time outside of that is spent alone.”
So at the end of the day, what do you call a group of pandas? An embarrassment of pandas is probably the catchiest option, but it’s not nearly the most popular one. A “group of pandas” seems to be the most popular option — while also being the blandest and least interesting of the group. A “bamboo of pandas” is an unlikely popular contender as well.
It looks like an “absurdity of pandas” would be a more accurate name than an embarrassment, but that’s unlikely to catch on. So if we’re lacking established names to call a group of pandas, why not make up some better ones? Here are some suggestions:
- a cuddle of pandas;
- a bundle of pandas;
- a snuggle of pandas;
- a lapful of pandas;
- a fuzzy of pandas;
- a huddle of pandas;
- a fluff-fest of pandas.
So, which one is your favorite?