FIVE THINGS you didn’t realize you were dying to know about collective nouns

Let’s go with the old journalism five Ws.

What:

You know them, collective nouns, also known as terms of venery, are those singular words we use to label groups of things, like a pride of lions, a school of fish or a quiver of arrows. When they are familiar we scarcely notice them, they’re just words, right? But often they are poetry: a murmuration of starlings, an ascension of larks, a lamentation of swans, a murder of crows. Or comedy: a slouch of models, a heep of sycophants, a whored of prostitutes.  Collective nouns appeal to the stuffy, pedant1 and the libertarian, neologist2 alike. They are the dark matter in our language3; every noun implies one or more though only a couple hundred have ever been spotted in the wild.

In my novel, EXIT STRATEGY, the protagonist, Jordan Parrish, a geneticist4 (who is, in fairness, almost certainly on the spectrum), is obsessed with collective nouns and, when under extreme duress, often recites them to himself to make sure his mind is intact. In my day job as a musician5, venereal words often worm6 their way into lyrics (“Pride, ascension, murder…”7). I admit it, like Jordan I’m a little obsessed.

 

When, Where, and Who:

We can take these three together as they are inextricably linked. The font of modern terms of venery is the venerable8 tome, The Book (or Boke) of St. Albans, written in 1486 by (most believe) Dame Juliana Barnes, prioress of the nunnery9 at Sopwell. In this volume, essentially a guide for gentlemen, is a list of one hundred and sixty four names for the “Compaynys of Beestys and Fowlys”. Interestingly, many collective nouns for types of people are included in the list, anticipating Mr. Darwin’s theories by several centuries.  The modern torchbearer is James Lipton (yes, the guy who hosts Inside the Actors Studio on Bravo), author of An Exaltation of Larks. Collective noun fans10, or venerists11, turn up in the unlikeliest of places.

Why:

Why do we need these odd words? Beyond their value to amuse and delight what exactly is the point? Of course, like so much of language, like slang, dialects and the babel of global tongues itself, the intent is to differentiate, to identify one specific micro subset of humanity and give that group, aristocrats12 in this case, a code to identify each other and keep out the riff raff, the peasants13. This was the explicit intent of Dame Juliana’s work. Lipton quotes a historical novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called Sir Nigel. In the book an older knight strives to educate young Nigel in the “terms of the craft,” imploring him to, “have a care…lest you should make some blunder at table, so that those who are wiser may have the laugh of you, and we who love you may be shamed.” Nigel goes on to correctly identify a cete of badgers, a skulk of foxes and a singular of boars but stumbles on the surely obvious, sounder of swine.

While the social pressure may have abated somewhat there is still benefit to at least passing acquaintance with the terms, not least in discovering fellow venerists in your literary travels. The term, by the way, for a collection of writers is a worship. Before you get too excited I should point out that this is a nod to the writer’s attitude towards his benefactor not the other way around. Oddly, there is no proper collective noun for novelists. We need one. Being a fan of alliteration I would offer a needlessness or, better, a narcissus.

 

  1. Quibble.
  2. None found, surely one is needed, consider this a gauntlet thrown.
  3. Babel.
  4. Helix.
  5. Pit, though I don’t think much of that one, I think a poverty of pipers or a neverthriving of jugglers better captures the spirit of the profession.
  6. A clew (if it were a noun).
  7. My Point Being by Curt Smith, a lyric that could describe a Shakespearean narrative arc or a very specific bestiary.
  8. Venery and venerable share the latin root venaris, like Venus, meaning adored or loved, ergo hunted – a little creepy, so words describing things you hunt are terms of venery.
  9. A superfluity of nuns is at least kinder than its priestly equivalent, a lechery.
  10. A gush.
  11. No, not a word (except in a game called Battle Master apparently), but it should be, the hunting and loving nods are both appropriate.
  12. An entitlement.
  13. A toil.

 

Charlton Pettus is a songwriter and producer living in Los Angeles. Since 2000 he has been a member of Tears for Fears, producing their last record and touring with the band as lead guitarist. EXIT STRATEGY is his first novel.