Tuesday, August 02, 2011

An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition by James Lipton

Did you know there are special terms for groupings of animals? Some of them you may have heard in old books- a Parliament of Owls, an Unkindness of Ravens, a Murder of Crows, a Pride of Lions. Well, these special terms come under the word venereal terms, from a word meaning to hunt. This name for groups of things, venereal terms, include things both living (skulk of foxes), imaginary (host of angels) and even words for groups of people of a certain profession (an fibrillation of cardiologists, a sentence of judges, a melody of harpists).

I was of two minds when reading this book. Yes, the animal collective terms are very well attested to in literature, and most readers will have heard of at least some of them, but the others are much more obscure. Some animals have two different words associated with groups of them (a gaggle of geese when on the water, a skein of Geese when in flight) while others have two words with no distinguishers (a sorde of Mallards, a Flush of Mallards), while others are made up to suit the present day professions and life (my personal favorite being "A Pile of Proctologists").

It's not just land animals that come under the veneral umbrella. Sea animals do as well: A pod of whales for small groups, a gam of whales for larger groups, A pod of seals, a swarm of eels, a quantity of smelt. And even stranger groups of animals as well: a shrewdness of apes, a knot of toads, a business of flies, a flock of lice... Every page is a new surprise, and many of these terms come with an explanation of why they were coined and what some of them mean. A shrewdness of apes, for example, is not based on how intelligent they are, but from an older root word that has much in common with the meaning of "wickedness", A "Walk of Snipe" refers to how the bird commonly gets around), while others, like some of the earliest terms (an exultation of larks being just one of them) have no explanation at all, merely being noted as being in the earliest lists of such terms available.

This book is a joy and delight to read. While the older terms for collections of animals, people and things may be unusual or memorable, it's the modern versions that truly delight the eye and the ear- a rash of dermatologists, a bored of trustees, a hangout of nudists, a spread of centerfolds, a slouch of models, all speak to a comedic and discerning eye for the world around the author.

But while the book could have ended there, Lipton included plenty of games to play, both of memory (finding and/or remembering the venereal terms for animals and groups of people, to a game in which the players try to find their own amusing and apropros terms for collections of animals, things, professions and what have you (My own contribution being a shitload of proctologists). Anyone who loves words, both old and new, will find this book amazing and a joy to read and devour, and get them thinking about their own terms for collections of things (a wreck of bad drivers).

This is not a new book, but remains humorous and relevant today for those who love English and some of the stranger words and terms that it has adopted and may somehow have been forgotten as people no longer used them. While some of the oldest remain in use (Pride of Lions), others have been lost by the wayside and may deserve to get revived in the future, while new ones will definitely be coined and minted, and this book gives people a great place to start. Highly recommended for those who love English and all its quirks.

1 comment:

Gary Allen said...

Lipton's book inspired ours: http://tinyurl.com/335scsl