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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Read Local: A Compendium of Collective Nouns

Posted By on Thu, Oct 3, 2013 at 7:52 AM


New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.

In 2011, Chronicle Books released A Zeal of Zebras: An Alphabet of Collective Nouns, and they revisit the subject in this month's A Compendium of Collective Nouns. Both titles were produced by Woop Studios, and Jay Sacher, who wrote the text.

In the foreword, Woop Studios talks about their obsession with collective nouns, but this is not an uncommon fixation. (More uncommon: The London-based Woop Studios notes the book was born during a gathering around "an old wooden kitchen table in our house in France.")

See also:

Victoria Chang's The Boss

Omnivore Books' Celia Sack

James Lipton looked to the 15th century Books of Venery for An Exaltation of Larks, and in 1985, Ivan G. Sparkes wrote A Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms, which boasted 1800 collective nouns.

Not to brag, but Woop Studios has compiled over 2,000. Sacher does a fine job of defining them, but make no mistake about it: This is an image driven book, and it just happens to be gorgeous. Check out five interior pages below, and their corresponding text:


Choughs are common European birds, related to crows but much smaller. Chattering or clattering seems to be a sound approximation of their song. Legend has it that upon his death, King Arthur was transformed into a chough. It is thus considered bad form to shoot a chough in the region of Cornwall, no matter how they chatter.


Perhaps the most famous of all the terms of venery, a murder of crows, besides simply sounding really cool, harks back to old folk stories about crows holding court over other members of their species, judging whether they should live or die. This sense of a "bird court" also appears to be why many birds are grouped into "parliaments." Many of the fanciful bird terms from the Middle Ages are references to the numerous folk stories about the intricate and often violent supposed cultures of birds. Even with no knowledge of the old folk stories, the funereal plumage of crows and their habit of feeding off carrion are more than enough to conjure up a murder of crows.


Along with being the medieval company term for the lark, it is the title of James Lipton's famous book on the subject of collective nouns, first published in 1968. Regarding whether the term should correctly read an exaltation or an exultation, the master acquiesces and appeases by invention the term an exultation of fireworks.


Raft is one of those lovely words whose two meanings are symbiotically linked. The original meaning, an aquatic vessel made of logs bound together, arose from the Old Norse raptr, but of course it takes a fair number of logs to build a raft, which leads us to the evolution of its meaning as a "quantity of something," that something in this case being otters. The phrase seems to be a twentieth century appellation, used by naturalists. Here it is from a 1979 wildlife survey of the California coast: "Sightings of seals amid otter rafts was not uncommon."


The Bengal Tiger is one of the few large mammals reported to kill people in significant numbers. Even today, with their population threatened on all sides, Bengal tigers are believed to be responsible for the deaths of between 50 to 250 people a year in the Sundarbans, a coast mangrove forest on the border of India and Bangladesh. While some believe the tigers of Sundarbans are particularly ferocious due to environmental factors like too much salt water in their diet, it seems more likely that ever-increasing habitat encroachment has put humans into contact with tiger populations that were historically so remote that they never gained a fear of humans.

A Compendium of Collective Nouns: From an Armory of Aardvarks to a Zeal of Zebras

by Woop Studios

(Chronicle Books; 236 pages; $35.00)

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