An Exaltation of Larks
Avery special book beckons to me from the shelves, An Exaltation of Larks, the fascinating collection by James Lipton, first published in 1968. Lipton, an American writer, poet, composer and actor, traced the tradition in the English language back to the 15th century when groups of animals, fish and birds associated with hunting were given names to epitomize salient characteristics. Young gentlemen were taught the precise designation of their quarry. We are familiar with some: a pride of lions, a plague of locusts and a litter of puppies. The magic of this book is in the hundreds of collective nouns that identify the essence of the group to the reader for the first time — and the witty engravings by Grandville, a 19th century French lithographer, that accompany most of the terms and the text.
Here are a few groups of birds to whet your appetite:
A parliament of owls.
An ostentation of peacocks.
A banquet of pheasants.
A murder of crows.
A siege of herons.
A brood of hens.
An exaltation of larks.
Skylarks climb high together into the heavens while uttering their song — thus the poetic comment of exaltation. In the interesting introduction to the book, Lipton traces the history from the 15th century to the present. He writes, “Obviously, at one time or another, every one of these terms had to be invented — and it is equally obvious that much imagination, wit and semantic ingenuity has always gone into their invention. The terms are too full of charm and poetry to suppose that their inventors were unaware of the possibilities open to them , and unconscious of the fun and beauty they were creating. What we have in these terms is clearly the end result of a game that amateur semanticists have been playing for over five hundred years.”
Lipton breaks down the terms into six families according to the original inspiration:
1. Onomatopoeia – A Murmuration of Starlings. A Gaggle of Geese.
2. Characteristic – A Leap of Leopards. A Skulk of Foxes.
3. Appearance – A Knot of Toads. An Army of Caterpillars.
4. Habitat – A Shoal of Bass. A Nest of Rabbits.
5. Comment (pro or con) – A Richness of Martens. A Cowardice of Curs.
6. Error – A School of Fish, originally a “shoal”
Part III of the book may be the most fun for readers since Lipton drew upon the Book of St. Albans, compiled in 1486, which included seventy references to people and life in the 15th century in addition to the birds, animals and fish for the hunt. The social references, scattered through the St. Albans book, are filled with wit and commentary about the manners and morals of the day. The lively, intriguing engravings accompanying these human figures capture the meaning and nuances in each term. Here are samples from the 15th century:
A Herd of Harlots
A Converting of Preachers
A Doctrine of Doctors
An Incredulity of Cuckolds
A Riffraff of Knaves
A Drift of Fishermen
An Eloquence of Lawyers
A Worship of Writers (Ah, I love that.)
Lipton closes his delightful book with a challenge to the reader to join the “game” and create clever terms that illuminate intrinsic qualities of a group. He says, about playing the game, “like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. I found that spectators didn’t stay spectators for long. If you should feel the urge, there are more brushes in the pail.”
An Exaltation of Larks is available online at Amazon.com