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A word game to soothe a restless spirit

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the venereal game - The Catholic weekly
A “flock of sheep.” Photo: Judith Prins

A book subtitled The Venereal Game is not normally one to be recommended in a family newspaper. Bear with me, however. The book’s title, An Exaltation of Larks, should tell you that I’m not citing an X-rated volume from the Freudian sewers.

Rather, the volume in question is a delightful celebration of imaginative collective nouns confected over the centuries by that dynamo of ingenuity, the English language.

Why, then, the somewhat dodgy subtitle? As English was evolving in the Middle Ages, there seems to have been an explosion of collective nouns, in part to satisfy the aristocratic hunters who wanted names for their prey considered as a group.

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“Venery” (derived from the Latin venari via the French venir) is, according to my venerable Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, either “the art, act, or practice of hunting” or “animals that are hunted.”

The author of An Exaltation of Larks, James Lipton, simply turned “venery” into an adjective, with no salacious intent.

[A brief pause: To be sure, developments in English usage can be corruptions as well as adornments. When “fan base” replaced “fans” as the go-to description of people yelling their lungs out at a ballgame, the culture of the Anglosphere was not improved. The same may be said for “body of work” replacing “career.” But I digress.]

Many of Lipton’s venereal or collective nouns are familiar: a “school of fish” or a “pride of lions” (I once adapted the latter as a collective describing senior members of the Roman Curia, for reasons into which we need not go).

The venereal game - the catholic weekly
A “tower of giraffes.” Photo: Julie Wolpers

Everyone has heard of a “host of angels” or a “flock of sheep.” But had you known about a “pomp of Pekingese” (think of Tricki Woo in the fine British remake of All Creatures Great and Small)? Or an “obstinacy of buffaloes”? Or a “tower of giraffes”? Or a “murmuration of starlings”? All of these have documented literary usage, some going back centuries.

The book’s title, an “exaltation of larks”, may be as good as the venereal game gets. But let’s not leave the animal kingdom without noting the appositeness of a “pod of seals”, a “murder of crows”, a “rafter of turkeys”, a “skulk of foxes”, a “colony of penguins”, a “parliament of owls”, an “ostentation of peacocks”, and a “bouquet of pheasants.”

Certain collective nouns for people and professions have some considerable history behind them: an “obeisance of servants”, a “prudence of vicars”, and an “incredulity of cuckolds” are three examples.

Others, Lipton reports, are of more recent vintage: a “brace of orthopedists” (also applicable to orthodontists); a “rash of dermatologists”; a “wrangle of philosophers” (to which I would add “an anxiety of existentialists” and “a diagram of linguistic analysts”); a “lot of realtors”; a ”click of photographers”; and a “wince of dentists” (useful in describing other medical specialists, including urologists and proctologists).

Playing the venereal game can soothe the spirit in the face of life’s seemingly endless frustrations, vicissitudes, or annoyances – political, sporting, ecclesiastical, whatever – just as linguistic venery can celebrate the goodness we encounter.

The following have occurred to me in recent weeks:

A “blindness of major league umpires” (with special reference to Ángel Hernandez, said by some wits to have recently “missed the eclipse”).

Or, staying with sports, how about “a futility of Detroit Pistons” (14 won, 68 lost in the NBA regular season)?

As to the current political scene, we might consider a “codger of presidential candidates”, a “comintern of progressive Democrats”, an “obscenity of pro-Hamas demonstrators”, a “bordello of Putinophiles”, and a “blockage of MAGA Republicans” (think of the Isolationist Caucus in the House of Representatives).

the venereal game - The Catholic Weekly.
A “reverence of Eucharistic adorers.” Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2023

Then there are matters ecclesiastical:

An “incomprehensibility of enthusiasts” nicely collectivises the cheerleaders for last October’s Synod on Synodality (recently described to me by one longsuffering participant as “a combination of intense boredom, deep frustration, and mounting anger”).

A “syllogism of Old School Thomists” works, as does a “nostalgia of Catholic traditionalists”, a “cataclysm of post-conciliar liturgists”, a “blandness of modern ecclesiastical architects” (Duncan Stroik and colleagues excepted), a “vacuity of St. Louis Jesuits” (can also be applied to Omer Westendorf lyrics, with an oak leaf cluster to “Gift of Finest Wheat”), and a “deconstruction of proportionalists” (the latter being those moral theologians who claim there is no such thing as an intrinsically evil act).

Or to riff on “an exaltation of larks” and celebrate what’s well worth celebrating, how about an “exultation of Nashville Dominicans” (or Sisters of Life, or Alma Mercies, or Ann Arbor Dominicans)? And let’s be grateful for those who constitute a “reverence of Eucharistic adorers.”

Your turn.

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