<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing If Not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 123 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 19, 2003

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A Venereal Game

Shawkat Hussain

I suspect that the mildly provocative title of this piece might lead some readers to expect some titillation from what follows. The provocation is intentional, but I must say at once that if there is any titillation at all, it is titillation of a different sort. This venereal game has nothing to do with sex; it is played with language and words. In a historical novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1906 (after he had finished with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson), two characters, a teacher and his pupil, play the venereal game. The teacher, Sir John Butteshorn tells his young pupil Sir Nigel, after whom the novel is named: “For example, Nigel, it is sooth that for every collection of beasts of the forest, and for every gathering of birds of the air, there is their own private name so that none may be confused with another.” And Nigel replies, “I know it, fair sir.”

But of course he did not know what he would say if he saw ten lions in Woolmer Forest. And neither would I if I saw some eleven tigers in Sundarban or eleven tigers playing cricket in Pakistan.

So what do we call a group of tigers? I confess I don't know, and my mentor in the venereal game, Stephen Lipton, doesn't either. A herd of tigers? I searched in vain for an existing “term of venery” and couldn't find one. In such a situation you can invent your own venereal term. The best two I was toying with were a stripe of tigers and a truculence of tigers. However, the Bangladeshi Tigers lost again to the Pakis in the second ODI and I abandoned my search. But what if our players were lions or leopards? I could have readily come up with correct, acceptable, and extremely poetic collective terms for these two animals. I could write that a pride of lions had vanquished the Pakis, or I could gush that a leap of leopards had pounced and defeated the Pakis. But no such luck this time.

What then would you say if you heard a collection of crows or ravens cawing all afternoon? You would have to say that a murder of crows was driving you crazy, or better still, an unkindness of ravens was disrupting your afternoon siesta. What if you looked up at the sky and saw a flock of larks? Only the sublimely poetic term an exaltation of larks would be proper; and then you could look down at an ostentation of peacocks, or point to a parliament of owls on yonder branch. And you would be an apt pupil of Sir John.

Nothing else would do, for as Lipton says, there are proper and authentic terms for every group of beasts, birds, fish, or insects, and however frivolous and fanciful they may seem at times, many of them were codified as early as the 15th century in The Book of St. Albans published in 1450.

Some known, even clichéd and common, terms of venery are the following:

A gaggle of geese
A herd of elephants
A school of fish
A brood of hens
A plague of locusts
A litter of pups
A flock of sheep

If you are a woman and happen to be reading this with a group of other women, you could be a bevy of beauties or better still, a clutch of coquettes.

Step back a moment from these familiar venereal terms, pause at the words locust or litter or brood, or bevy or clutch, and you immediately become aware of the daring and creativity that must have gone into their making.

And there are many unknown, extraordinary terms of venery, all correct and useable, characterized by originality and imagination and small flights of poetry. Here are a few:

A kindle of kittens
A cowardice of curs
A rafter of turkeys
A sloth of bears
A skulk of foxes
A company of parrots
A murmuration of starlings

There are one hundred and sixty-four terms of venery, many flashing with wit and poetry, codified in The Book of St. Albans. A little more than a dozen have been presented here. What is interesting is that out of the 164 terms, seventy refer not to birds and beasts but to people and life. Thus you have a herd of harlots, a superfluity of nuns, a school of clerics, a doctrine of doctors, a sentence of judges, an incredulity of cuckolds, a worship of writers, an abominable sight of monks.

The venereal game has been going on for the past five centuries, and it is quite evident that the players and the codifiers knew that they were playing a game. Some new players have put together a more contemporary list, and here's a brief sampling: a tower of giraffes, a condescension of actors, a debauchery of bachelors, an erudition of editors, and an unhappiness of husbands.

Obviously, this slight column is an invitation to you to join in the venereal game. Our first attempts are quite likely to be alliterative, like a pack of politicians, and masters of the venereal game warn us to fight this impulse.

I conclude this piece with a few of my own inventions, and with a promise of tomorrows for all my readers. When you see a group of feminists next time, you could say, “Look, there's a fury of feminists.” Or you could refer to a truck of deconstructionists and a brood of theorists.

I have now decided that if the Bangladeshi Tigers beat the Pakistanis, I will say that a triumph of tigers have thrashed the Pakis. The alliterative impulse is difficult to resist. (bangla_deshi@hotmail.com).





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