An Infinity of Nothings

Written By: Tipsy Table - Oct• 08•14

We often spin off versions of the group phrase A Pride of Lions. Who doesn’t? This time honored phrase makes so much sense, imagining a regal group of lions that we all can see. But, we had no idea of the origin of this phrase until recently rediscovering a fine book on the subject that was on a reading list for a college language course, a class that also included several weeks of attempting to learn Esperanto.

Exalt book cover

Cover of the 1968 edition.

An Exaltation of Larks–The Venereal Game by James Lipton will get your attention. It is a good book, one that can be read easily on a late summer day in the mountains. We learned plenty, sitting out on a lovely day, breathing mountain air and watching our Huskies rest in the back yard. Published in 1968, it does a lot to further the thesis that the English language is a literary power with many subtleties and much richness.

Yes, this is the James Lipton, son of the esteemed American poet, and a man of many talents. He is an author, playwright, actor, lyricist, equestrian, pilot, and might even deliver the mail. He served as dean of the famous Actor’s Studio in New York, and still produces and hosts Bravo’s Inside the Actor’s Studio. Lipton also recently revealed that in the 1950s, he procured prostitutes in Paris. A Profusion of Professions?

The Colonel’s sketch of James Lipton, circa 1968.

Lipton’s book and these phrases add immensely to literature and culture. In this inspired piece of writing, the wonderful An Exaltation of Larks linked with the much more mundane A School of Fish (which is explained in its context). In addition, the book offers the explanation for these phrases starting in the sixteenth century in England, with such as A Shrewdness of Apes and A Cowardice of Curs.

This form has variously been referenced as “nouns of multitude,” or “nouns of assembly,” sometimes as “collective nouns.” According to this book, the terms have been used in literary form and common language for hundreds of years.

As an academic and man of letters, Lipton became fascinated with these collective nouns that led to this book and answers the query–what makes these phrases venereal? One thinks of venereal, from the root venery, to refer to love or lust, if there is a distinction. No, explains Lipton, the root is really the Latin ven as used in venari, meaning to hunt game. Thus, we find so many of these phrases relating to game animals, which Lipton breaks down into six families and lists on page 9.

  1. Onomatropoeia: for example, A Murmuration of Starlings, A Gaggle of Geese.
  2. Characteristic: A Leap of Frogs, A Skulk of Foxes. This is by far the largest family.
  3. Appearance: A Knot of Toads, A Bouquet of Pheasants.
  4. Habitat: A Shoal of Bass, A Nest of Rabbits.
  5. Comment: (pro or con, reflecting the observer’s point of view) A Richness of Martens, A Cowardice of Curs.
  6. Error: (resulting from an incorrect transcription by a scribe or printer, faithfully preserved in the corrupted form by subsequent compilers) A School of Fish, originally ‘shoal.’

After clarifying this centuries-old background to this trip of language, Lipton then introduces the additional human categories that evolved, including A Band of Men (think A Band of Brothers), A Bevy of Beauties (with a fine interpretation), and A Slate of Candidates, the latter to get us into the rich vein of politics and politicians, whether we want to or not. Lipton goes on to explain and embellish some of the most commonly used phrases and some of the most lavish with his personal take, while adding a few he manufactured just for the book.

The list that follows consists of the terms of venery that I have coined or encountered since I first began unearthing these shards of poetry and truth. I hasten to acknowledge that some of the terms are not mine. As I played the venereal game, like Tom Sawyer whitewashing his fence, I found that spectators didn’t stay spectators long. If you should feel the urge, there are more brushes in the pail.” (p. 93)

Lipton lays out some fine new collectives, such as An Escheat of Lawyers, An Odium of Politicians, and An Unction of Undertakers. He inspires us to join in the fun of whitewashing the fence.

Illustrations include works of European artists Granville, Durer and others unsigned.

Granted, some of these collective nouns are odd, such as A Murder of Crows, A Skulk of Foxes, or A Labor of Mules, but what could be more illustrative than A Bouquet of Pheasants? An endangered species today, the old French A Route of Wolves referred not to their rough journey, but to the French word for a troop. Living part-time in Idaho, we can update this with a more current An Endangerment of Wolves, A Political Execution of Wolves, or, well, we could go on and on. No whitewash here, just the sad truth.

Some good ones have weathered well through the centuries: An Impatience of Wives; A Draught of Bottlers; A Drift of Fishermen. An Illusion of Painters would be difficult to improve upon. However, some rise up to strike the sensibilities, such as An Eloquence of Lawyers. What might have been instructive in early history will not work with our prejudice in the now: hence, An Overpayment of Lawyers should be added to the mix. The 16th century A Cry of Players has some distant, lost meaning. In deference to Lipton and his theater work, we might suggest a contemporary A Studio of Players.

Sitting at the patio table, we began to think of more contemporary phrases, just as Lipton did in his seminal work. A Parliament of Owls is lovely; speaking to the wisdom of these birds, but conversely seems much too elegant a descriptor of our current mess of elected officials who act more like a scrum of mud wrestlers. So we suggest A Recess of Congressmen.

To extend the conversation and underscore how entertaining this can be, consider the contemporary:

An Aspiration of Bloggers

An Embarrassment of Selfies

A Ho-Hum of Social Media

 Perhaps we can continue to work on this list. Tipsy Table invites suggestions to the cause. As Lipton said, “…there are more brushes in the pail.”

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