Southern Words

Venery of NounsThere are a lot of things I wish I had invented. Name the product, idea, or concept, and someone has already come up with it, much to my frustration. Heck, I’m smart. It’s just that I’m smart…a day late.

For instance, one area that bothers me because I wasn’t the first is that of terms of venery. Sometimes called “nouns of assembly” or “collective nouns,” they are the interesting, unique names for groups of animals: a herd of cows, a school of fish, a swarm of bees.

Those are all pretty common. Some others not quite as renowned are (I promise I’m not making these up; Google “collective nouns” or “nouns of venery” and you’ll see): a bask of crocodiles, a rhumba of rattlesnakes, a knob of toads, a parliament of owls, and my all-time favorite, an exaltation of larks.

You wonder how they came up with those names. (I’m sure I could take the time to research this, but, well, I have a life.) To wit: an exaltation of larks. What is a lark, that it should be exalted? I’m thinking the church got involved with this one…perhaps a flock of larks stopped to rest in Lourdes, France, RIGHT at the time a priest finished bathing, and he took their arrival as a sign. Of what, I have no idea, but soon word of the “Miracle of the Larks” reached the Vatican. In no time, the church proclaimed “henceforth, the lark shall be exalted. Yea, so exalted is the lark that if there be more than one, they shall be called ‘an exaltation of larks.’ Thus it has come to pass, we have killed two birds—not larks, of course—with one stone: we raised the lark to its rightful status, and we added yet another noun of venery to the culture.”

And why stop with animals? A few years back, “Click and Clack,” aka brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, on their fantastic NPR show “Car Talk,” held a contest to see who could come up with the best noun of assembly for groups of people. The only one I remember is the one that I think won the contest: a stroke of geniuses. Brilliant (even…genius)! As usual, I wish I had thought of it.

A few others, my own pitiful attempts:

  • A vault of bankers
  • A brief of attorneys (and a gavel of judges)
  • A wrench of mechanics
  • A block of writers
  • A shrink of psychiatrists
  • A splatter of painters
  • A cathouse of congressmen (no offense intended… to cathouses)

And don’t stop with just people! Recently, some friends and I were discussing terms of venery (hmm, maybe I DON’T have a life after all), and decided to apply the concept to one of our favorite things…beer. What term would be the most appropriate to describe a bunch of beer, a pile of pilsners, an assembly of ales? (Did you catch the allure of alliteration there? Sorry; sometimes coming up with collective nouns can go too far.)

“Six-pack” and “case” were already taken, to say nothing of boring. Also, what if the number weren’t six or 24? Clearly, a better term was needed. A number of candidates were nominated, considered, and discarded. Some examples:

  • A delight of beers
  • A wonderment of beers
  • A lagoon of beers
  • An algorithm of beers (one of our group is a math professor; this one didn’t last long)
  • A Yee-Haw of beers (another of our group is a redneck; this one didn’t make it far, either)

Finally—and again, I’m bitter because I didn’t think of it—someone came up with “a harem of beers.” Wow. Given beer’s stereotype as a subservient bidder of man’s—and apparently, ONLY man’s, if popular culture is to be believed—wishes, “harem” is the PERFECT noun of assembly for it. (The discerning reader will note that I subliminally had a noun of venery in that last sentence: “a bidder of wishes.” Told you this can go too far.)

Try coming up with your own collective nouns. Pick a common noun and think of a new, unique way to describe more than one. To help get you started, try to come up with clever names to call groups of: farms, sandwiches, clouds, golf balls, and unicorns (OK, that one isn’t so common, but give it a shot). Why, this could turn into the next great craze…which someone else has probably already thought of. As usual, I’m a day late. A lifetime of bitterness (see how easy it is?).

An enough of this.

Richard Eisel

Richard Eisel

Richard Eisel lives in Georgia. Besides writing, he enjoys reading, sailing, and baseball. He has been working on his first novel for about thirty years.  So far, he has written three paragraphs, but they are really good paragraphs.

  1. Mr. Eisel clearly consorts with a clod of cronies, who, too, might be a croon of comics. Then, again, they could be a gutter of guffaws.

    Yes, yes. He is right about one thing: “too far” is usually too close.

  2. We put a list of collective nouns on a blackboard at work and people kept adding to it daily. Several were good, but the best was “a rash of prostitutes”. 8-)

  3. Frank Povah

    Trouble is, a lot of these “official” collectives arose simply from the predilection of the 18th and 19th century elite for assigning poetic and/or pretentious, often pseudo-scientific names to everything. Like “an hotel” and “an historical” the internet seems to have ensured that they are now ensconced as correct.

    Why do we, a generation that grew up believing that we “couldn’t believe anything you read in the newspapers”, now takes everything on the internet as the truth? Of course the Tea Party’s backers are thankful that we do.

    (Among my favorites are a club named The Philoperisteron Society, which in 1867 became (and still is) the National Peristeronic Society, and the ampersand.)

  4. I really enjoyed this :-) I actually wrote about collective nouns on my own blog – – but your take on it is very different and I enjoy your style. Very amusing.

  5. Hi, my fave is “a pocket-protector of nerds”.

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