A comedy of errors?
By Susan Prior
A murder of crows, a cete of badgers, a bale of turtles, or a shush of librarians.
No, these expressions are not a fanciful comedy of errors, but, in fact, belong to a real group called terms of venery. And, yes, ‘a comedy of errors’ is one such term, too.
Venereal terms describe a group of something. They were first recorded in the 15th century, most famously in a handbook on hawking, hunting, and heraldry, the Book of Saint Albans. The book codified many colourful expressions still in use today, but many more of them, sadly, now lack currency. Or, as T.S. Eliot might have said, they have slipped, slid, and perished from everyday use.
Simon Cauchi (editor of Sixth Book of Virgil's Aeneid, 1604) explains, ‘“Venery” has two meanings, one a synonym for hunting and another a synonym for amorous pursuits. Venery (hunting) comes from the Latin verb venari and has nothing to do with Venus.’
The social climbing arrivistes of Henry VI’s court would know these verbatim, as formal, proper expressions. Terms of venery are examples of verbal dexterity, witticism, and humour, and it was a fashionable amusement for those in erudite society to extend their lexicon of these terms. Today, thanks to Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks — an authoritative contemporary tome on the subject — they are experiencing something of a renaissance. The game of venery is alive and well, with new expressions continually being invented or embellished.
Terms of venery are usually identified as collective nouns. As Lipton points out, grammatically this is a misnomer. Collective nouns are words such as ‘majority’, ‘class’, and ‘jury’, where the singular form expresses a grouping of individuals. Terms of venery are much more stimulating than that. Lipton (p. 110) says, ‘The term of venery is a spotlight that illuminates something for us, letting us see fresh insight’. You understand what he means when reading expressions such as ‘an ostentation of peacocks’, ‘a cowardice of curs’, and ‘a charm of finches’. The joyful and poetic illumination of language is apparent when browsing Lipton’s book. We are, indeed, fortunate to have been endowed with a verbal paint palette of colourful word associations.
If you are a writer you will appreciate words, a rich vein of nuance to be mined for your next project. You will enthusiastically reclaim words now faded into obsolescence. You will relish composing in vibrant hues. So, why not begin a game of venery and invent your own contemporary bon mots.
Here are some examples to whet your appetite: a redaction of editors; a conjunction of grammarians; a wince of dentists; and a relaxation of retirees.
Cauchi, S 2013, Copyediting-L, Indiana University, United States, web log post 31 July, viewed 31 July 2013 http://www.copyediting-l.info/.
Eliot T. S. (1991), ‘Burnt Norton’, Collected Poems, 1909–1962 (p. 175). Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Lipton, J. 1991, An Exaltation of Larks. London: Penguin Books.