Monday, December 2, 2013

All Together Now

The Houston Chronicle recently had a Page One photograph of a flock of birds, which it called a “murmuration.”  Murmuration, usually referring to a group of starlings, is one of the more exotic “nouns of assembly” that are traditionally applied to specific kinds of animals when gathered in large numbers.  Some of the most common are pride of lions, herd of cattle, school of fish, and gaggle of geese. 

These terms originated in the traditions of French and English venery, or hunting of animals, in the 14th and 15th centuries. Using such terms was regarded as fashionable, showing that one was in the know.  The specific terms might spring from observation of an animal’s behavior or from a whimsical play on words based on some perceived characteristic of the animal.   

Most of these terms are now obsolete, but some of the most colorful ones are surely worth preserving.  I’d hate to lose references not only to a murmuration, but also to an exaltation of larks, charm of goldfinches, murder of crows, shrewdness of apes, piteousness of doves, busyness of ferrets, mischief of mice, pandemonium of parrots, unkindness of ravens, skulk of foxes, whoop of gorillas, scurry of squirrels, ambush of tigers, and lamentation of swans.

Incidentally, the word venery is interesting in itself.  From the 14th century, it meant “hunting” or “animals that are hunted,” derived from the Latin venari (“hunt” or “pursue”), from which the word venison also stems.  In the 15th century another unrelated venery, meaning “pursuit of sexual pleasure,” developed from the Latin prefix vener-, which came from Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Try not to confuse the two.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou belongs to a very selective group of versifiers that are known as an abomination of poets.             
            A hunter whose style was imperial 
            Told his wife he’d had exploits venereal.
                        She said, “I’ll teach you to trifle,” 
                        Then she picked up his rifle— 
            And I fear things are now quite funereal.

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