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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
known, even clichéd and common, terms of venery are
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.