The Venereal Game
On the words we use when talking about groups.
Lest you, gentle reader, think that there has been some mistake by me, the author, and by Angela Reitsma Bick, CC’s editor, in writing and publishing a column about lewd and lascivious matters, let us hasten to assure you that this is not the case. The game I am talking about here pertains (originally) to the naming of groups of animals that one would hunt. Venery (from the Latin venari, to hunt) means “sports of the chase” or simply: hunting. Readers will be familiar with the related word venison that refers to the meat of a deer. Speaking of deer, what would you call two or more of them in a group? If you answered “a herd,” you would be correct, demonstrating at least a cursory venereal knowledge.
I think that, because of other unsavory connotations of the word venereal, its use for naming groups of animals has fallen out of favour and we refer instead to a broader category of collective nouns. Thus, we have such familiar non-animal collectives a quiver of arrows, a den of thieves, a fleet of ships, a pack (or tissue) of lies and so on. But the origin of collective nouns is grounded in venery, that is, the hunting of animals. Very early English manuscripts provide lists of the animal collective terms that any self-respecting gentleman hunter should know. The Book of St. Albans, the most complete and important of the early lists of animal collectives, appeared in 1486, a scant 10 years after William Caxton introduced the printing press to England.
The source of many of the collective animal names is quite easy to discern from the animals’ physical or behavioural characteristics. My very favourite animal collective is an exaltation of larks. Anyone wandering in a field and suddenly seeing a group of larks (or swallows) swooping and diving, helter-skelter in pursuit of insect prey, has to give thanks to our Creator and to the first English hunter who aptly exclaimed, “Gadzooks, behold, an exaltation of larks!” And then there is an ostentation of peacocks. Who hasn’t marveled at the shimmering display of raised feathers of the male peacock as he exuberantly cries out to attract any female within earshot? But what about a murder of crows, a kindle of kittens or a sorde of mallards? Where did such collective terms originate and what do they mean? Answers to these questions and a further listing and explanations of more than 1,000 collectives can be found in James Lipton’s wonderful book, An Exaltation of Larks (Penguin Books, 1993).
In great fun, Lipton supplies terms for all sorts of fanciful collective nouns for the modern reader and encourages readers to add to them. Thus, we have a click of photographers, an overcharge of plumbers, and a hack of heavy smokers. I particularly like his collectives for various academics, viz., a clamber of assistant professors, a tenure of associate professors, an entrenchment of full professors, and an ex cathedra of professors emeriti (like me).