Today the Archie McPhee Library explores a particularly fascinating part of the English language, collective nouns, words that denote a group of things (a “school of fish”, for example). An Exaltation of Larks [Buy on Amazon] by James Lipton (yes, the same James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio) is an entertaining and exhaustive assemblage of collective nouns, over 1,100 over them, beautifully illustrated with hundreds of engravings created by 19th century French illustrator J.J. Grandville.
An “exaltation of larks”? Yes! And a “leap of leopards,” a “parliament of owls,” an “ostentation of peacocks,” a “smack of jellyfish,” and a “murder of crows”! For those who have ever wondered if the familiar “pride of lions” and “gaggle of geese” were only the tip of a linguistic iceberg, James Lipton has provided the definitive answer: here are hundreds of equally pithy, and often poetic, terms unearthed by Mr. Lipton in the Books of Venery that were the constant study of anyone who aspired to the title of gentleman in the fifteenth century. When Mr. Lipton’s painstaking research revealed that five hundred years ago the terms of venery had already been turned into the Game of Venery, he embarked on an odyssey that has given us a “slouch of models,” a “shrivel of critics,” an “unction of undertakers,” a “blur of Impressionists,” a “score of bachelors,” and a “pocket of quarterbacks.”
Here’s what Lipton himself had to say about what inspired him to write this awesome book:
"I cornered the market on the most peculiar habit of the English language, namely the designation of groups of things by a term. We all know a few, a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a host of angels, and we use them without thinking about them. A chorus of complaint. One day I suddenly thought to myself, why a gaggle of geese, why a pride of lions? A pride of lions – pride, really, it is the quintessence of a lion; he’s proud. Who said that we will capture the entire quintessence of this beast in a single word, a pride of lions? And that started me on a search that lasted for years."
Click here for the complete interview.
We use collective nouns all the time, sometimes without even thinking about them (think “flight of stairs”), but this book reveals that there are far more of them in existence than we ever dreamt. It’s one of the most amusing reference books we’ve ever encountered and, ultimately, it’s also a wonderful love letter to the English language. Which is why, in turn, this book is a must-have for anyone in love with words.