Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Exaltation of Larks

When I go to the used book section at Barnes and Noble I always come out with something that I do not realize may be seen as inappropriate until I hand it to the person at the counter and they raise their eyebrows at the title. Last time it was Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. I really could have used that book for my ninth grade research paper and I felt that I needed to own it on the off chance that I am someday required to repeat high school, as happens so frequently in nightmares. Also, what an arresting title. I regret a little that I don't have the second edition, which is surely more enlightened than the 1985 edition, but this is a subject for a different post.

The other title to cause the person at the checkout to wonder about me was An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game. We were talking about adjectives of relation a few posts ago -- "venereal" is a handy one that you can drop into silences at dinner parties you didn't want to attend in the first place to make sure that you will never be invited back. "Madam hostess, shall I delight the company with the thrilling tales of my venereal pursuits?" You would, of course, be referring to "venery," or the hunting of wild animals, but the adjective is extremely misleading and you can only hope some delicate flower will faint in the soup.

Ever since one of my professors starting telling my class that he was going to teach us all kinds of things that would make us the center of dinner parties, I have been eagerly waiting to be invited to one. It has not yet happened. I wonder if dinner parties will have gone out of fashion before I am old enough to get invitations to them. I hope not, for I have such a large store of things to say, and I'm sure I will be adding to it from the many delightful items in this book, An Exaltation of Larks.

The first thing to note is that An Exaltation of Larks was written by James Lipton. I thought there must be another James Lipton, but there is not, it is the same James Lipton you are thinking of right now. James Lipton the actor, the interviewer, and the . . . collective noun enthusiast? Yes, indeed. James Lipton is an absolute scholar of the collective noun. Collective nouns, you will remember, are the ones used to describe groups: a school of fish, a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks. They began as official hunting terminology in the fourteenth century (or earlier), and somewhere along the way expanded to include groups of people or professions or just about anything. Lipton notes a collective noun I never would have noticed in the phrase "a chorus of complaint." Essentially, this book is a brief history of collective nouns with examples.

But, there is another notable thing here, and that is this: it was designed by Samuel N. Antupit, who I was not surprised to learn had a rather distinguished history in graphic design. (His impressive obituary is here.) He gave this book the exact design it demanded. Here's the first page of the introduction:

Look at those indents! You know it's going to be good when there are crazy indents and the page number is in an unexpected place. The red line is there so you can see how much the paragraphs do not line up. That, too, is a good sign. It means the book was printed before computers robbed books of character.

The lists of collected nouns are presented quite simply, sometimes with etymological notes. They are accompanied by these strange and creepy illustrations of anthropomorphized animals. Crows are popular, as are cats and deranged-looking monkeys.

Even the dust jacket fades in the most charming possible way, yellowing so that it looks like it was printed on two-hundred-year-old parchment.

I approve of this. I also approve of collective nouns. Here are some good ones out of various books from the last several centuries:

a business of ferrets
a crash of rhinoceroses
a skein of geese
a clowder of cats*
a smack of jellyfish
a pencil of lines (used in math)
a superfluity of nuns
an impatience of wives
a prudence of vicars
a draught of bottlers
a proud showing of tailors
an impertinence of peddlars
a fighting of beggars
a foresight of housekeepers
a goring of butchers
a rascal of boys

*Clowder probably means clutter. My father and Ivan's brother will agree that cats are clutter.

And here are a bunch that James Lipton and others have made up playing the dubiously-named venereal game:

a piddle of puppies
a wince of dentists
a sneer of butlers
a disagreement of statesmen
an indifference of waiters
a bloat of hippopotami
a conjunction of grammarians
a shrivel of critics
a hack of smokers
a no-no of nannies
a consternation of mothers
a slant of journalists
a recession of economists
a complex of psychoanalysts
a fifth of Scots
an overcharge of repairmen

There are many more of these, and I believe the second edition is double or triple the length of the first. I think I'll see how many of these I can work into daily conversation before I go looking for more. However, I can quickly stock up on the rest if you invite me to a dinner party. Please also invite at least two or more ferrets, tailors, housekeepers, hippopotami, grammarians, or Scots, so that I will have occasion to use them.


Anonymous said...

I fully endorse this book! And what a fitting post for no. 601.

Seeing as you are contemplating collective nouns, how does one refer to a a collection of blog posts - such as you you and Ivan have accumulated, lo these many years?

A plethora of posts?
A profusion of posts?
A basket of blogs?
A wealth of wit?
An extravagance of electrons?
An influx of insight?
A cornucopia of knowledge?
(OK - so that one only alliterates if you mispronounce k-nowledge.)

The possibilities go on and on.

Simon said...

Isn't it fun? The venereal game is so easy to catch!


This is only one of the many dreadful jokes I refrained from making while writing this post. I will now endeavor to refrain from putting the rest in the comments.