Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Friday, April 28, 2006

exaltation of larks

An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton.

It's pretty much common knowledge now or at least amongst those who have interest in both grammar and Nick Cave, that just as one refers to a "school" of fish or a "pride" of lions, that one can refer to a "murder" of crows. Published in 1968, Lipton's book argues that in fact it's not merely that one *can* refer to a murder of crows, but that to refer to an anything-else of crows is downright grammatically incorrect. He unfortunately doesn't quite make it clear what he means by this, but it's tantalizing. I can't believe, for example, that the sentence "I was mocked by a council of crows" is incorrect. I just can't. You could have a council made up of crows. End of story. What about the more generic "a group of crows" ? - It's certainly more correct to say "a school of fish" than "a group of fish", but is "group" actually incorrect ? I don't know.

None the less, he argues very convincingly that the following terms are 100% squarely in the grammatical canon, and that it is always at least more correct to use these words than the generic "group".

Apparently the history of these words goes back to at least works printed in 1320, with the authoritative text being The Book of St. Albans, printed in 1486. Apparently these words were way more important back then because hunting was way more important as a courtly sport. The idea being that if you were an up-and-coming courtier and said that you'd "spotted a fabulous group of lions" today, you'd have shamed your family name for all history. As such, The Book of St. Albans was a courtier's primer, more or less, and contained a relatively large chapter listing some one hundred sixty four various names of groups of huntable animals and other presumably non-huntable things like doctors and maidens.

Before getting to the good stuff, i should add two things: If you manage to get hold of a copy (thanks to Sarah for mine), be sure to actually read the introduction because it's quite well-written and really sensitizes the palette for the stuff to come. Second, Lipton points out that there is in fact no name for these types of words. He proposes the term "Venereal Words", because apparently venereal is archaicly associated with the hunt. I think it's a horrible word euphonically and associatively and am not using it. Third, there's a chapter in which Lipton proposes a bunch of new terms such as "a trip of hippies" and "a dilation of pupils" (published in 1968, recall) which i more or less skipped, and none of the words below are from that section.

Reminder: these are all 100% grammatically correct.
In fact more correct than just "a group of blah".

An exaltation of larks.

A murder of crows.

An unkindness of ravens.

A skulk of foxes.

A business of ferrets.

An ostentation of peacocks.

A tidings of magpies. (!)

A boquet of pheasants.
- so gorgeous!

A host of sparrows.
- akin to a host of angels, meaning an army.

A clowder of cats.

A smack of jellyfish.

A pencil of lines.
- let's hear it for the abstract !

and now into the people.
be warned that most of these are pretty anglo/masculo/affluo-centric.

A sentence of judges.

An impatience of wives.

A dilligence of messengers.

A proud showing of tailors.

A boast of soldiers.

An impertinence of peddlers.

A poverty of pipers,
and A neverthriving of jugglers.
(serves 'em right)

A rage of maidens
(this apparently comes from an archaic meaning of "rage" which was not "anger" but "wantonness")

An incredulity of cuckolds.

A foresight of housekeepers.

An illusion of painters.

A goring of butchers.

A drunkenness of cobblers.

and finally a comment on the popularity of the catholic church in england circa 1400:

A superfluity of nuns,
and An abominable sight of monks.


  • I'll like to also add that the book has amazing graphic design which causes Kai to want to own the book, even if she probably won't actually read it.

    *she doesn't have to because she read this blog entry instead

    By Blogger The Sensualist, at 4:04 PM  

  • We've loved Lipton's book for decades -- but after reading it, we noticed that our language has few, if any, specific collective terms for plants. We decided to remedy that with a book of our own: "Terms of Vegery."

    It's a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek collection of photos and botanical word-play (often based on truly awful puns -- you've been warned!). Sample entries can be seen at: http://tinyurl.com/335scsl

    By Blogger Gary Allen, at 11:19 AM  

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