The agreeable eye

an eudæmonist

cut to the chase

Galen, Avicenna, Hippocrates

‘A doctryne of doctoris’ or ‘a example of maisteris’

Normally when I get an idea, I charge ahead and scribble about it, tangling words together in the hopes that I will net my quarry – that is, some sort of sense (even if it is nonsense). Usually it works (more or less), but sometimes it doesn’t. This is one of the times when it didn’t.

* * *

In rummaging through the books to clear out space, I happened upon a copy of James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks, purchased some years ago at the library book sale in a fit of preciosity, which gathers together a broad assortment of terms of venery (from venari, to hunt) or collective nouns – think ‘pride of lions’, ‘bevy of ladies’, and the like – and advertises itself as a reference book. I started to flip through it, ready to be edified or at least amused, and found that I wasn’t. Edified. Or amused. I was bored. Irritated. Beginning to get a headache from grinding my teeth and rolling my eyes, because what I should have found funny (or, at a bare minimum, a bit of drollery), wasn’t – a circumstance that led me to wonder whether my sense of humor, never particularly robust to begin with, had at last atrophied entirely.

My irritation, like ancient Gaul, could be divided into three parts. The first part was rooted in the arch playfulness of using the word venery, nudging and winking at both the chase and the unchaste – this might have its moments, but it took too many of mine. The second part stemmed the book’s claim to be a work of reference. If this were indeed the case, one would expect the inclusion of supporting material and quotations for pretty much every item, which, given that I am complaining about it here, you may safely assume was not present in quantities that I would consider sufficient.1 I am not averse to a whimsical dictionary, but one needs to make clear what is a ‘real’ reference and what is frankly made up. Or file the book under humor.2 The third part branched off from the second: most of the items listed are not, have not, and will not be used – because they are (a) not funny and (b) not necessary.3 The whole thing was lousy with a sort of ersatz nostalgia4 or logophilic kitsch that made me uneasy without, as I mentioned, providing edification or amusement.

But then of course, just to be fair, I had to have a look at one of the earliest lists of collective nouns in English, which appears in The Book of St. Albans (associated with the perhaps apocryphal Benedictine prioress Juliana Berners) and dates to the fifteenth century. Naturally, it includes equally silly terms that are equally unlikely to have been widely used – a worship of writeris, an execucion of officerys, a bhomynable sight of monkis – and repetitions (a sculke of foxis (or freris)) sufficient to suggest that it should be taken with a grain of salt or tongue in cheek or however else you would like to express a suspension of credulity or seriousness. So I was wrong about Lipton, and all my tripartite reason-mongering was just cussedness or indigestion. The book is pretty much in the spirit of its genre, and, if it currently possesses less historical interest, it might acquire a greater patina with age. I won’t be able to confirm that, though, because it is still going into the sell pile.

  1. It was good in places, though, and that was one of the things that made it particularly frustrating. I would make a joke (i.e., ‘a misprision of revisions’ ) but, as I said, I did not find it amusing. []
  2. The dangers of a misleading BISAC. []
  3. I defy anyone to provide an example of, e.g., ‘a helix of geneticists’ that does not mention (or post-date) Larkin. []
  4. Christman has an amusing discussion of a recent (perhaps also apocryphal) conflation of whip-ass and kick-ass as an instance of misplaced nostalgia for the 1980s, although it would require far more evidence than seems to be available to support that hypothesis; I will admit to spending an amusing afternoon flipping through The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang merely to confirm that it did not contain ‘whip/whoop-ass’, while ‘to kick ass’ is ‘to be especially energetic and exciting; to succeed by your vigorous effort’, which is of course all that anyone could ask for (and confirms that Green is the better option to slake the thirst for slang). []


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