A Repugnance of Republicans. A Sycophancy of Saundersonites. A Conspiracy of Conservatives. A Misanthropy of MAGA-Hatters. A Cowardice of Councillors. A Laziness of Reporters. A Slyness of Staff. A Corruption of Politicians. A Disingenuity of Candidates. A Fallaciousness of FOX Commentators. A Malice of Mayors. A Lying of Lobbyists. A Bloviation of Bloggers.
The Game of Venery is all about coming up with collective (aka corporate or multitude) nouns under which to group animals, people, professions, and things. And the more entertaining and amusing, the better the game, especially when they contain some element of truth or observation. I promised I’d return to this topic (see here for my recent post An Odium of Politicians) and here I am.
Often topical issues, personalities, and events lend themselves to such efforts easily. For example, a Toadiness of Trump Followers. A Pseudoscience of Anti-Vaxxers. A Stupidity of Flat Earthers. A Putinesque of Republicans. A Traitorship of Convoy Drivers. A Treachery of Insurrectionists. I entertain myself coming up with what, I will admit, are often clumsy attempts at such terminology. But sometimes the effort is worth it, if for nothing more than the chuckles.
The game of venery is an old intellectual exercise — dating from medieval times — in which participants come up with collective (also called corporate or assemblage) nouns as a sort of haiku-like short form that both defines and entertains. It’s a conflation of metaphors to create a new one that amuses and enlightens in its brevity. And it can be played anywhere, at any time. Over dinner. Over drinks. While walking the dog. It requires nothing but your brain and a modicum of wit.
Knowing the proper terms of venery was, of course, taken far more seriously in the past, when expressing the right term was a sign of breeding, class, and education. Calling it a flock or starlings instead of a murmuration was like saying “y’all” in conversation today. Conan Doyle wrote a novel, Sir Nigel, set in the 1350s, in which there is an amusing conversation about the terms of venery between an older knight and a younger one.***
The use of collective nouns has a long history dating back even before the printing press (a Plagiary of Printers), but it was widely spread by that marvellous invention. The most famous book of which was The Boke of Saint Albans, 1486, written, allegedly, by Dame Juliana Barnes (or Juliana Berners), but there were others before and after her, and even today they are being published (see below for my favourite two). Many of these terms have ossified into the language so long, their ancient age and origin are forgotten.
Long-time readers here might recall I wrote about the game of venery back in 2015 and in my previous blog; however, my interest in collective nouns (and words in general) is much older. Despite recent downsizing, my home library still contains many books on language, words, etymology, and usage. But I digress.
As noted on BigThink:
Terms of venery are special types of collective nouns that denote groups of animals. The word venery entered English in the early 14th century through the Medieval Latin venaria, which means “beasts of the chase, game.” Although archaic by today’s standards, venery can still be used to mean “the practice of hunting.”
Well, that’s not quite accurate. Even the earliest books with these terms included more than just animals: people, professions, and objects were included. The term venery itself (from the Latin veneria) refers to “the art, act, or practice of hunting,” and by association, the hunted animals themselves. Through the delightful evolution of language, venery — the hunt conflated with the Latin venereus, venerius “of Venus” — also came to refer to “the pursuit of or indulgence in sexual pleasure.” Hence venereal disease comes to refer to sexually transmitted diseases as opposed to something you got while hunting boars.
In his delightful book, An Exaltation of Larks: The Venereal Game*, author James Lipton categorizes collective nouns according to six types of definitions. He admits these are his own invention, but they serve as platforms for making decisions when playing the venereal game. Here are the categories he presented with an example of each:
- Onomatopeia (e.g. a gaggle of geese);
- Characteristic (a leap of leopards);
- Appearance (a bouquet of pheasants);
- Habitat (a nest of rabbits);
- Comment (a cowardice of curs);
- Error (a school of fish – originally a shoal).
To which list I would add satire as separate from comment, and would subdivide comment into sub-categories such as political, moral, religious, social, and scatological comment. The collective nouns you arrive at while playing the game can be a mix of public perception, personal views, or clever witticisms. For example, A Gaslight of Poilievre Tweets, or A Lie of Trump Tweets are both sarcastic and factual. Yes, perhaps a bit too blunt in a game where the sharpness of the combination provides the winning hand. On the other hand, social media rewards linguistic bluntness more than it does surgical precision. Just ask anyone who has tried to correct another who posts “your” instead of “you’re” what sort of reaction they received from the hoi polloi who chime in afterward.
Personally, I am attracted to alliteration in the invention of collective terms, perhaps because they are easy to recall. They have a poetic feel about them., a skip of syllables But even without alliteration, these terms should stand out like little sparkles in whatever text they are used in. The game lets players turn anything into nouns; verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
Lipton first published his book in 1968, and it became so popular that it went through numerous editions, all of them popular. My oldest copy of his book is from 1977; the second edition, with more than 100 additional entries than the first edition offered. I believe I bought it when it was newly published. After many years, Lipton produced the “ultimate” edition in 1991, which not only greatly expanded from the original 175 terms to more than 1,100 and 138 to 324 pages, he expanded many explanations (and, of course, I also have it). The depth of his research into word sources and derivatives is truly impressive. As well, Lipton provided a section on how to play the game of venery in more formal manner than I do here, and added an index.
Part of the book’s delight lies in his notes about how a term came to be, often taking the reader down a winding path where Lipton hunted for explanations through both medieval and modern texts. For example, these are from the Penguin Books website:
A SCHOOL OF FISH
As noted earlier, school was a corruption of shoal, a term still in use for specific fish. C. E. Hare, in The Language of Field Sports, quotes John Hodgkin on this term arguing that school and shoal are in fact variant spellings of the same word, but Eric Partridge, I think correctly, sees them coming from two different roots, the former from ME scole, deriving from the Latin schola, a school, and the latter from the OE sceald, meaning shallow. I think it is obvious that in the lexicon of venery shoal was meant and school is a corruption.
A PRIDE OF LIONS
One of the oldest venereal terms, antedating even the English lists in the French lyons orgeuilleux. The earliest English manuscript, Egerton, and The Book of St. Albans both have a Pryde of Lyons.
A NEST OF VIPERS
Also, generation of vipers, Jesus’s characterization of the multitude that came to be baptized. “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Luke, 3:7.
A SHOCK OF CORN
A shock is a pile of sheaves of grain or stalks of corn propped in a field. See thrave of threshers.
A BEVY OF BEAUTIES
This is one of the few terms of venery whose origin is uncertain. Hodgkin says, “There is no satisfactory etymology for the word ‘bevy.’” Partridge marks it o.o.o.—of obscure origin; but hazards the guess that it derives from the Old French bevée, a drink or drinking.
A SET OF CHINA
Since, as noted on the preceding page, the purpose of this section is to restore the magic to the mundane by reexamining words we take for granted, let’s see what happens when we put our magnifying glass over the commonest of these common terms, set. Any surprises? Yes: the Oxford English Dictionary devotes 23 pages to the word! “The complete collection of the ‘pieces’ composing a suite of furniture, a service of china, a clothing outfit, or the like,” descended from the Old French sette, is there, as is a set of badgers (q.v.)—but so are hundreds of other definitions, nuances, roots and tributaries. The point of this note is that the intrepid semanticist in search of any word’s meaning may find himself hacking his way through an Amazonian jungle of possibilities. And that, as every page of this book attests, is the great and everlasting glory of the vast, supple, subtle English language.
The second such book in my library is A Compendium of Collective Nouns with text by Jay Sacher and graphic design by Woop Studios. (This may be an update of the 64-page children’s book from the same publisher and graphics studio, A Zeal of Zebras, but I can’t confirm that.**) I wrote about the Compendium back in 2015. It contains more than 2,000 collective terms in 236 pages (a somewhat larger format than Exaltation). While more comprehensive than Lipton and having excellent explanations about the sources of terms, it lacks his wit. Still, it’s also an essential title in any lexophile’s collection. I like that despite the considerable overlap, both books have terms the other lacks.
You can find many lists of collective nouns online, but none as well-explained or as amusing as those in Exaltation or The Compendium. Many lack any sort of explanation and merely provide the terms without sources or references. Here’s a list of about 200 common terms. The Guardian published a list of Ten of the best collective nouns in 2014, but these are from traditional sources, as is this list from Australian Geographic. Here’s a much longer list including some apparently invented by their contributors (a few of which are quite amusing). Wikipedia offers this list.
In both the books mentioned above, there are credible sources listed, and bibliographies. Most of the online sources I’ve seen lack them. And remember that books are always better than websites because you can read them in bed. but again I digress; of course, my readers know books are better than the internet.
Aside from being a game, creating collective nouns is almost a lost art. Given the low level of literacy required to use social media, it’s not surprising you don’t see much of it in between twerking videos, selfies, pseudoscience piffle, and rightwing ragetweets. To play the venereal game, you need to think, to slow down, and to let your mind meander — and sometimes skip —through your internal vocabulary for appropriate terms. And at least a modest sense of humour is necessary. The knee-jerk reaction format on social media is not designed for cogitation and an intellectual to-and-fro (and online I spend far too much time pedantically correcting people using “your” instead of “you’re”).
But in the meantime…
A Corruption of Councillors. A Connivance of Conservatives. An Exuberance of Architects. A Glaciation of Bureaucrats. A Delay of Planners. A Lubrication of Alcoholics. A Mystery of Mechanics. A Draft of Planners. A Surge of Cyclists. A Plinking of Ukulele Players. A Crassness of Lobbyists. A Meanness of Talibangelists. A Rise of Bakers. A Tumble of Washing Machines. A Fleece of Victims. A Lollygagging of Liberals. A Clique of Communists. A Wank of Incels. An Expression of Writers. A Trump of Con Artists. A Grift of Homeopaths. A Tizzy of Squirrels. A Rhyme of Poets. A Bowing of Buddhists. An Apology of Canadians. A Murder of Gun Fanatics…
And what can you offer?
* Ultimate Edition; mine is from 1991, although there is a 1993 edition. I am not aware of any changes to the later edition aside from a new cover.
** Not to be confused with A Zeal of Zebras: Animal Groups on an African Safari, by Alex Kuskowski; a 24-page children’s book also published in 2012, but by SandCastle.
*** From the book, published in 1906:
The old Knight shook his white head doubtfully. “There is so much to be
learned that there is no one who can be said to know all,” said he. “For
example, Nigel, it is sooth that for every collection of beasts of the
forest, and for every gathering of birds of the air, there is their own
private name so that none may be confused with another.”
“I know it, fair sir.”
“You know it, Nigel, but you do not know each separate name, else are
you a wiser man than I had thought you. In truth–none can say that they
know all, though I have myself picked off eighty, and six for a wager
at court, and it is said that the chief huntsman of the Duke of Burgundy
has counted over a hundred–but it is in my mind that he may have found
them as he went, for there was none to say him nay. Answer me now, lad,
how would you say if you saw ten badgers together in the forest?”
“A cete of badgers, fair sir.”
“Good, Nigel–good, by my faith! And if you walk in Woolmer Forest and
see a swarm of foxes, how would you call it?”
“A skulk of foxes.”
“And if they be lions?”
“Nay, fair sir, I am not like to meet several lions in Woolmer Forest.”
“Aye, lad, but there are other forests besides Woolmer, and other lands
besides England, and who can tell how far afield such a knight errant
as Nigel of Tilford may go, when he sees worship to be won? We will say
that you were in the deserts of Nubia, and that afterward at the court
of the great Sultan you wished to say that you had seen several lions,
which is the first beast of the chase, being the king of all animals.
How then would you say it?”
Nigel scratched his head. “Surely, fair sir, I would be content to say
that I had seen a number of lions, if indeed I could say aught after so
wondrous an adventure.”
“Nay, Nigel, a huntsman would have said that he had seen a pride of
lions, and so proved that he knew the language of the chase. Now had it
been boars instead of lions?”
“One says a singular of boars.”
“And if they be swine?”
“Surely it is a herd of swine.”
“Nay, nay, lad, it is indeed sad to see how little you know. Your hands,
Nigel, were always better than your head. No man of gentle birth would
speak of a herd of swine; that is the peasant speech. If you drive them
it is a herd. If you hunt them it is other. What call you them, then,
- The Father of Modern English - © March 19, 2023
- Not the Chaucer You’re Looking For - © March 17, 2023
- More Venery - © March 12, 2023