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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

Gracing Groups With Novel Names Results in an Ample Array of Aimless Appellations

February 17, 1991|JACK SMITH

GAGGLE OF GEESE, a school of fish and a pride of lions are widely known group terms, but there are many more, and the form invites invention.

Some years ago I wrote about "An Exaltation of Larks" (Grossman, 1968), a delightful book on the subject by James Lipton.

Lipton has now produced a revision that he calls "An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition" (Viking.)

Lipton's list of group terms has been considerably expanded (to more than 1,000), and he has added some history of the genre and some rules for parlor games, both group and solitaire.

One understands Lipton's love of group names, or, as he prefers to call them, terms of venery, a word that in this context means hunting or the chase, not sexual intercourse.

The collection of such terms seems to have begun in 1486 with publication of "The Book of St. Albans," prepared by Dame Juliana Barnes, with 164 terms of venery. Many of those are still in the language, such as those mentioned above, as well as a shrewdness of apes, a barrel of monkeys and a nest of vipers.

Lipton explains that in the 15th Century shrewdness meant wickedness, naughtiness or mischievousness, not the benign cleverness it means today. Thus, it was considered appropriate for a company of apes.

Dame Juliana's bestiary and other early works also include such classics as a murder of crows, a true love of turtledoves, an ostentation of peacocks, a gang of elks, a host of sparrows (or angels), a descent of woodpeckers, a sloth of bears, a crash of rhinoceroses, a charm of finches and a party of jays.

"Obviously," Lipton observes, "at one time or another every one of these terms had to be invented--and it is also obvious that much imagination, wit and semantic ingenuity has always gone into that invention: The terms are so charming and poetic it is hard to believe their inventors were unaware of the possibilities open to them and unconscious of the fun and beauty they were creating. What we have in these terms is clearly the end result of a game that amateur philologists have been playing for over five hundred years."

"An Exaltation of Larks" also lists group phrases that are fixed in the language, a part of everyday speech: a flight of stairs, a round of drinks, a rope of pearls, a bouquet of flowers, an embarrassment of riches, a hail of gunfire, a fusillade of bullets, a den of thieves, a can of worms, a fleet of ships.

Lipton lists five types of venereal terms: (1) onomatopoeic, such as a "murmuration" of starlings; (2) characteristic, such as a leap of leopards; (3) appearance, such as a knot of toads or a parliament of owls; (4) habitat, such as a shoal of bass, a nest of rabbits; (5) comment (pro or con, reflecting the observer's bias), such as a cowardice of curs; and (5) error, perhaps by a printer, such as school for shoal in school of fish.

Inevitably, this form of poetic invention was applied to people as well as beasts, usually with a humorous twist of social comment. In "The Book of St. Albans," no fewer than 70 of the 164 terms refer to people and life in the 15th Century: a superfluity of nuns, a pontificality of prelates, an abominable sight of monks.

Lipton notes that the 15th Century terms anticipated Hogarth and Dickens in their satirical characterizations of urban types: an eloquence of lawyers, an obeisance of servants, a scold of seamstresses.

The game goes on, with much invention. Lipton disapproves of puns, offering as an example the story of the four dons who are walking a road when their way is blocked by a group of prostitutes. Each reflecting his own academic specialty, the dons describe the women as "a jam of tarts," "a flourish of strumpets," "an essay of Trollop's" (sic) and "an anthology of pros."

Lipton labels these puns as "whores de combat" and argues that they lack the poetic function of metaphor; they do not say one thing for another, but two things--thus, "essay" and "Trollop's."

That argument is a bit refined for me. I rather like "a flourish of strumpets."

Lipton lays down some rules for playing the venereal game either in solitaire or in groups and appends a list of 1,000 nouns, from aardvarks to yuppies , for which the players may invent group names. In group games, a master is named before each round to choose the winner. In solitaire, the game is its own reward.

For example, what group names would you invent for accountants, actors, admirals or anchorpersons? The book lists a column of accountants, a queue of actors, a bridge of admirals and a chain of anchorpersons.

Since there are no limits, I would suggest an addition of accountants, a stage of actors, a command of admirals and a chatter of anchorpersons.

Your turn.

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