September 29, 2015

Words of the Month - Venery

        No, this post isn’t about the pursuit of sexual pleasure.  That venery dates from the mid fifteenth century and is related to Venus, and more commonly heard nowadays in the adjectival form venereal.  Today’s venery means hunting or the sport of the chase, and dates back to the early fourteenth century.  Although users of the first definition may like to think there was a connection, in fact the two words derive from different Latin roots.  The second is seen nowadays only in venison.  However, it’s a further development of the word that’s my theme this month.  In the fourteenth and fifteenth century it became the fashion for the nobility to use specialized vocabulary as part of their hunting culture, thus marking just how in-the-know (or not) someone might be.  Part of this vocabulary included “nouns of assembly” or “terms of venery”: collective nouns for groups of animals.  Although ostensibly these terms of venery were to denote groups of animals that the nobility would actually hunt, such as 
a skulk of foxes
a singular of boars (There’s no explanation for this one!)
a bouquet of pheasants
… in fact many refer to much more exotic creatures, including
a crash of rhinoceroses
an army of caterpillars
a shrewdness of apes
a smack of jellyfish
        Even in the earliest lists terms were invented not only for all kinds of animals, but also all kinds of people.  Some interesting ones are
a sentence of judges
a diligence of messengers
a melody of harpists
a neverthriving of jugglers
You can see that right from the beginning there was a tendency toward satirical humor.  For example
a superfluity of nuns
a proud showing of tailors
a drunkenness of cobblers
        And thus with all the modern coinings, which are sometimes meanspirited or excessively cynical, and sometimes silly, and occasionally brilliant.  They usually involve punning (or paranomasia, if you recall.)  My favorites are those wherein the group word is actually a word that denotes a group or large number, but reveals a special significance when paired with a particular sort of person or animal.  I especially like
an exaggeration of fishermen
a rash of dermatologists
a shower of meteorologists
a mass of priests
a portfolio of brokers
a horde of misers
a mess of officers
a conglomerate of geologists
a drove of cabbies
a concentration of thinkers
a complement of courtiers
a quiver of cowards
a range of stoves
and of course
a fraid of ghosts  (Yes, go ahead and groan!)

[Pictures: A Murmuration of Starlings, rubber block print by AEGN, 1998;
Gibbon Dream, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999.]
(Most of these terms were found in An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton, 1968, but some were collected in other places, too.)

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