I have long wanted to do a post on a lovely little book that I've pored over keenly for years. Every time I've told people about An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton, I've always scoffed at the suggestion that it's the ten questions dude from the Actor's studio. "No this is an academic book," I derided with a snort. Um, so imagine my surprise when I googled his name and found that the handsome young academic pictured on the jacket was actually a clean-shaven version of the ten questions dude.
The book is subtitled The Venereal Game, but lest you think it's a drinking pursuit for infectious frat boys, read on. The root of the word comes from Venus, and while we usually associate it with physical love, it may also be defined "to desire (and therefore) to pursue." The words venery and venereal were used to describe all things associated with the hunt.
Lipton's Exaltation of Larks is really a celebration of the English language with all it's rich shades of meaning, confluence of sources, and playful expressiveness. He traces the origins of traditional hunting terms known as "nouns of multitude." Lipton describes his thesis simply: "when a group of ravens flaps by, you should, if you want to refer to their presence, say, 'There goes an unkindness of ravens.' Anything else would be wrong."
His sources for the book were social manuals or books of courtesy that codified the terms. From the Middle Ages, the hunt was traditionally the exclusive realm of the aristocracy. These books were created to provide gentlemen a "means of social acceptability," or to prevent awkward conversational blunders when in polite society.
Some of my favorites include:
- a murmuration of starlings,
- a bouquet of pheasants,
- a richness of martens,
- a murder of crows,
- a dissimulation of birds,
- a siege of herons,
- an ostentation of peacocks
- and, of course, a clowder of cats
In hopes that "a charm of poetry will have quietly slipped into our lives," Lipton included a chapter of terms that were created later as pure fun and play and threw in some of his own. In this spirit, we should create some terms with contemporary relevance:
- a parsimony of lenders,
- a ribaldry of teenage pop stars,
- an intemperance of halloween candy,
- a this-is-the-big-one of Elisabeths
- a cupidity of consumers,
- a cuchi-cuchi of 70's tv icons,
- a rapacity of investment bankers,
- a salaciousness of Giraldo Riveras,
- a potence of voters,
- a deliciousness of toddlers' thighs,
- a babbling of news anchors.
Feel free to add your own...
Unfortunately, Blicky's interview withy James Lipton was cut short:
Blicky Kitty: Meow, What is favorite word?
James Lipton: Those are my questions.
BK: Meow, OK, is it true, meow worked as a maquereau in post-WWII Paris translating for prositutes and taking American tourists to sex shows?
JL: Damn you, Blicky Kitty! I knew I should have done the Giraldo Rivera interview instead.