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A pleasure of English is the language’s imaginative and poetic use of collective nouns. Their fanciful pedigree as names for persons, places, things goes back to the 15th century. A pride of lions. A murder of crows. A dray of squirrels. A wedge of swans. A pass of asses. (Leave mine alone!)
Such word groupings were originally used as terms of the hunt. No knight, Robin Hood, King Arthur, squire or scholar was deemed learned unless he knew the collective nouns for fish, fowl, and four-legged beast.
While there are hundreds of these verbal flights of fancy cataloged – with new generics being coined daily – most of us know just a handful. These oddball categories pop up in megabuck quizzes or MENSA conversations.
Here’s a sampling that you may or may not know depending upon the gay MENSA cocktail parties you do or don’t get invited to. A barrel of monkeys. A deceit of lapwings. A truculence of moving men. A flap of nuns. A fidget of altar boys. A discretion of priests. Did I say cocktail parties? Sounds more like parish picnics.
And how about these. A whiplash of potholes. A Calcutta of panhandlers. A samba of shopping carts. A sneer of butlers. An indifference of waiters. A blarney of bartenders. A handful of gynecologists. A probing of proctologists. A quincunx of objects.
Quincunx isn’t genitalia. “Any group office objects placed in a square, with four of the objects at the square’s corners, and one at its center.”
In other words, an orgy.
For those with saltpeter taste, shake these on your next tossed salad. A freeze of virgins. A spread of centerfolds. A keyhole of voyeurs. A rack of sadomasochists. A herd of harlots. A lubricity of nymphomaniacs. A rictus of drag queens.
Rictus! The Encarta Dictionary fingers it, “a fixed openmouthed grin or grimace, especially an expression of horror”. As in: “Wipe that rictus off your puss, Big Guy! Be thankful my quincunx seats five.”
Source for these delightful samplings is “An Exaltation of Larks: More Than 1000 Terms,” by James Lipton. The $14.95 Penguin paperback is illustrated with – improvising on the spot here – a giggle of graphics, a funning of old time lithos.
Mr. Lipton has done an heroic job of lassoing these energetic collective nouns, many contemporary. An expresso of Italians. A doldrum of reruns. An embarrassment of beepers. A babel of cellphones. (Improv: an earful of iPhones). A generation of sperm banks. An up yours of New Yorkers.
There’s only one LGBT collective noun included. A falsetto of transvestites. To rictus, er, rectify this, let’s add a strappado of leathermen. A courting of U-Hauls. A whirligig of dildos. A tattoo of tops. A braggadocio of butches. A lingulate of lesbians. A mildew of closet queens. A changeling of T-persons. An after-schooling of P-FLAGers.
(Oh, yes! A miasma of homophobes, A fleabag of fundies. A sphincter of televangelists.)