September 23rd, 2004

syntax tree

A babel of linguists, a byte of geeks: Terms of venery

anthrochica just discovered the terms of venery (you know, "a congress of baboons", "a raft of ducks", "a pride of lions", etc). contrasoma asked "what's the origin of these?"

Well, funny you should ask, because there just happened to be a linguist in the room -- or, as I like to say to exterra's 13-year-old cousins: "this sounds like a job for the Great Linguini!"

The truth is, I don't know much[1], but I do know Wikipedia. They have a pretty good page on Collective nouns, also known as terms of venery, due to the odd poetic habits of 15th century Englishmen and -women. Venery originally only referred to scent-hound hunting, [as opposed to coursing -- hunting with sight-hounds -- and falconry], but nevertheless in this phrase venery is generalized to "hunting", and from there to "animals".
(As an aside, venery as "hunting" might seem to be related to venery as in "venereal disease", but according to the American Heritage, they're distinct in Old French and were only collapsed in Middle English. It's possible that the distant root wen-1 in Proto-IE might have been the same word, though.)

My guess is that many of the terms in Exaltation of Larks are fanciful stuff, made up by late Victorian and bored Edwardian upperclass word geeks (much like computer jargon of the 21st c.), but it certainly is entertaining.

Googling suggests I (and anthrochica!) should be careful about quoting too much of this in public: James Lipton, the author of Exaltation (and apparently the same guy who hosts the "Inside the Actors Studio" show), apparently sued somebody for $100,000[US] for making posters from the information in his book.

On the other hand, this somewhat more contemporary page on collective nouns for people seems to be more open to re-use.

I find the whole idea entertaining in a 19th-century sort of way. I like the mis-application of these terms and the creation of new ones. For example: "a babel of linguists" seems like a natural, but it turns up zero google hits.

I'm open to new suggestions. What else deserves its own collective noun? "A tribe of anthropologists"? How about "a cackle of TV show hosts"?

[1]... but I know what I like, heh.
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