The Venereal Game


Forgive the rather idiotic comments on the source page for this humourus image. They only prove that one need not understand something in order to comment online.

The Venereal Game is the provocative subtitle of James Lipton’s 1968 classic, An Exaltation of Larks (reprinted in 1977, and later expanded in the 1993 “ultimate” edition). Venereal, in this sense, comes from venery which in turn comes from the Latin venari, to hunt or pursue, rather from the sexual connotation.*

The collective nouns in much of Lipton’s book come mainly from hunting terms (terms of venery), many originating in the 1486 Book of St Albans and similar contemporary works that Lipton documents. Since that publication, creating collective nouns has become a game for many of a lexicographical bent, hence the venereal game. Even Conan Doyle engaged in it, in chapter XI of his novel, Sir Nigel, which Lipton quotes at length.

Everyone is familiar with several common collective nouns (or nouns of multitude) like these:

  • a school of fish
  • a herd of cattle
  • a swarm of bees
  • a flock of birds

But there are many, many more and yet others have been crafted as recently as the last few years (as in “a deck of Trekkies” coined in 2014). Some are quite ingenious and express a playful approach to the topic.

Lipton’s book was the first, to my knowledge, to recall and popularize these terms, as well as breathe new life into the venereal game. The Book of St. Albans contained 164 such terms. The Collective Noun Page lists 630. Lipton’s 1993 edition has 1,100. Jay Sacher’s 2013 book, A Compendium of Collective Nouns: From an Armory of Aardvarks to a Zeal of Zebras, contains more than 2,000 such terms (see below). The list may be much longer and other sources can be found online. I’m not sure if anyone has ever attempted to collate all of them.

Lipton’s charming book is worth it just for the introduction and commentary he provides about the nature of the terms, their sources, and about language in general. He also offers some fascinating historical data on Dame Juliana, the possibly mythical author of the Book of St. Albans.

However, the book lacks both a table of contents and an index (in my 1977 edition). It is arranged by somewhat whimsical sections – the known, the unknown, the unexpected, and the serendipitous – thus making it difficult to locate specific terms or references.

Lipton categorizes collective nouns according to six types he admits are his own invention. But they serve as platforms for making decisions when playing the venereal game:

  1. Onomatopeia (e.g. a gaggle of geese);
  2. Characteristic (a leap of leopards);
  3. Appearance (a bouquet of pheasants);
  4. Habitat (a nest of rabbits);
  5. Comment (a cowardice of curs);
  6. Error (a school of fish – originally a shoal).

Lipton himself suggests some terms he has conjured while playing the word game, including “a flutter of cardiologists.” Since my wife works for a cardiologist, I would suggest “a murmur of cardiologists” or even “an echo of cardiologists” might be more appropriate. See how easy it is to be caught up in the game?

Wordinfo has many pages of collective nouns, although far from the most comprehensive, and even a desultory glance shows some terms have more than one choice. This is, in part, as the introduction to the content notes,

Many of the words in the Venereal Terms: Names of Groups unit have no authoritive basis and have been created, either seriously or humorously, by people to express possible names for the various groups represented in the terms.

For example, a group of anatomists might be called a corps or a body; antelopes can be a herd, a cluster or a tribe. On a more modern note, it offers for cellphones a babel, an annoyance or a craze of cellular phones. This is not so much a confusion of terms but an indication that a particular noun might be collectively perceived in different ways along Lipton’s families, according to context. And there is always the word-play factor.

Compendium of Collective NounsThe latest book about collective nouns is appropriately called “A Compendium of Collective Nouns,” text by Jay Sacher and impressive design by Woop Studio. It is both a linguistic and a visual delight. Many terms are illustrated with full-page, colour graphics while smaller graphics populate the text portion.

I found the book this week at the local Chapters in the bargain section for a mere $10!

What I liked most was the text that explains many terms in an etymological and/or historical context, which helps make the choice of collective more understandable. Lipton also provides explanations, however for fewer terms than Sacher comments upon. Sacher’s list of terms is almost double that of Lipton’s 1977 edition (I have recently ordered the 1993 edition for comparison).

The Compendium has both a general index and an index of the collective nouns, and is arranged in alphabetical order, making it much easier to find references than in Lipton. It also has a select bibliography.

My only question to the author so far is why he chose a “whisper of snipe” over the “wisp of snipe” mentioned in Doyle or the “walk of snipes” in Lipton.

Both books are, however, worthy additions to the library of any lexophile and can lead to some entertaining after-dinner conversations with friends who can be coaxed into playing the venereal game.

* The homonym venereal as a sexual reference comes from a similar medieval Latin word, veneria, meaning “sexual intercourse,” which comes from the classical Latin venus (genitive veneris), according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. For more on the two forms, see the Wordinfo site.

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  1. As I was reading these books and browsing lists online, I started to play the venereal game myself. I saw “a plagiary of printers” which probably stems from the days before we had intellectual property protection. I would think “a press of printers” might better suit them. Or “a ream of printers.”

    I saw “a gush of sycophants,” which is cute but thinking of the remora-like behaviour of local sycophant bloggers, I wonder if “a slander of sycophants” might be better. Or ‘a suction of sycophants.” Or maybe “a barnacle of sycophants.” or even “a slither of sycophants”

    There is “an equivocation of politicians” which is always good, and also an “odium of politicians,” but thinking locally, I would prefer “an ineptitude of politicians.” There’s quite a list of possibilities here, many of which are defamatory:

    I couldn’t find a suitable collective noun for bloggers, even on so, again thinking locally, I suggest: “a bluster of bloggers” or “a bombast of bloggers.”

    There’s a good article on the Oxford Dictionary blog about collective nouns:

  2. The Ultimate edition of Lipton’s Exaltation of Larks arrived this week and I am pleased to say it’s a much better and more comprehensive work than the first edition. It has more terms, a lot more description and explanation, and an index of sorts. Worth owning if you have any passion for our language.

  3. Pingback: An Odium of Politicians – Scripturient

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