A volley of venery

Monday Book Review

February 25, 1991|By Ann Egerton

AN EXALTATION OF LARKS, THE ULTIMATE EDITION. By James Lipton. Viking. 294 pages. $18.95. IN THIS BOOK about the 500-year-old linguistic game of venery, James Lipton both instructs and entertains. "An Exaltation of Larks" is a deceptively simple collection of such old terms as "exaltation of larks" and "pride of lions," coupled with many new ones that are often up-to-the-minute in their references: "a prowl of arbitrageurs," "a golden parachute of CEOs," "a huddle of homeless."

It is also a history of the books of venery (from the Latin venari, meaning the act of hunting game), which codified the terms of the hunt. The books that Lipton unearthed in his research were part of the 15th century "Books of Courtesy" and gave "the only proper term for a group of whatever beast, fish, fowl or insect [they] designated." They were, for their times, primers of chivalry and etiquette all in one, and the socially ambitious 15th century gentlemen didn't dare enter society or the hunt (the two went hand in hand) without them. Oddly, the accredited author of the most important and certainly masculine book of venery, the "Book of St. Alban's" (1486) was a woman, Juliana Barnes. People as well as animals are represented. ("A bevy of beauties," "a passel of brats.")

Lipton, who is also the author of the novel "Mirrors," as well as screenwriter and producer of its film version, has gotten a lot of mileage out of venery. His first collection of "An Exaltation of Larks" was published in 1968 and has never been out of print. Here, he presents the original list of 175 terms and greatly expands it. Over the years, he says, he and a number of people have joined the game and added their own terms.

The original categories of the game of venery were broken down into the six following families, according to the apparent inspiration for each term: onomatopoeia, for example, "a gaggle of geese;" characteristic, for example, "a leap of lizards;" appearance, for example, "a knot of toads;" habitat, for example, "a nest of rabbits;" comment (pro or con), for example, "a cowardice of curs;" and error, "resulting from an incorrect transcription by a scribe or printer, faithfully preserved in the corrupted form by subsequent compilers," for example, "a school of fish," originally a "shoal." Many of the terms are explained etymologically and dart from Latin to Middle English to Norse to French and back again with entendres up to the sixth degree -- "a caper of kids," for instance.

More terms have evolved over the years, many thanks to the clever minds of Lipton and his pen pals as well as Shakespeare, "a sea of troubles," Mark Twain, "a raft of kings," and others. This, the ultimate edition, includes over 1,100 terms and 24 new categories, ranging from people, places and things ("a glasnost of Russians") to games and recreation ("a peel of sunbathers") to zoology ("a wake of vultures").

Inevitably, we are invited to play the game of venery and are provided with a variety of rules for both solitary and group score-keeping.

"An Exaltation of Larks" is about more than just linguistic games and history. It is an impassioned plea for preservation of our rich and fecund language. Lipton is among the world's Wunderkind of wordsmiths.

Ann Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

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