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One of the many pleasures of English is the imaginative, poetic use of its collective nouns. A crowd of people. A charm of hummingbirds. A herd of elephants. A flange of baboons. A nitpicking of Southern Baptists.
Take animals. Their fanciful pedigree of grouping dates 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. (The latter has a pleasing ring to it, don’t you think?)
And these for poetry: a piteousness of doves, an implausibility of gnus, a crash of hippopotami, a warren of wombats.
Such word groupings were originally used as terms of the hunt. No knight, no squire, no scholar, no Robin Hood or King Arthur was thought learned unless he knew the collective nouns for fish, fowl, four-legged beast, or beastie.
While there are thousands of these flights of verbal fancy – with new categories being invented daily (“a wilderness of ex-gays”) – most of us know just a handful. Oddball categories pop up on quiz programs or MENSA gatherings. When was the last time you size dated a IQ 140?
Here’s a sampling that you may or may not know, depending upon the cocktail parties you may or may not get excluded from: a cete of badgers, a deceit of lapwings, a truculence of moving men, a flap of nuns (“a wash-and-wear of Sister Scatterpins”), a fidget of altar boys, a discretion of priests. No comment. (“A confessional of playboys.”)
Here’s more: 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 poking of proctologists”), a quincunx of objects.
Dykes, please note. If asked, the latter is a scientific rather than an anatomical definition. “Any group of five objects placed in a square, with four of the objects at the square’s corner, and one at its center.” In other words, an orgy. My face seats five.
For those with salty tastes, 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 beauty queens. If I missed your three pieces of ID here, please accept my apology and that of BTL.
By the way, my Encarta Dictionary defines rictus as “a fixed open-mouthed grin or grimace, especially an expression of horror.” It should be more properly applied to size, not beauty queens.
Source for some of these curious items is “An Exaltation of Larks. More Than 1000 Terms,” by James Lipton (Penguin reprint: $14.95). It’s illustrated with – let’s improvise on the spot – “a giggle of graphics,” “a funning of old-time illustrations.”
Mr. Lipton – who surely must have better things to do with his spare time – has done an heroic job of lassoing these energetic items, some of which are contemporary. An expresso of Italians, a doldrums of reruns, an embarrassment of beekeepers, a babel of cell phones, a generation of sperm banks, an upyours of New Yorkers. (He missed corralling “a bushwhack of Republicans.”)
I found only one LGBT round up: a falsetto of transvestites. (How about a “crusade of cross dressers”?) Mr. Tipton is to be excused. His collection was published in 1968, one year before “a Stonewall of gay activists.”
To rectify this I dutifully offer these neologisms of LGBT groping, er, grouping: a dickering of bath attendants, a strappado of leathermen, a courting of U-Hauls, a battery of dildos, a dilatation of dykes, a braggadocio of butches, a layback of femmes, a payback of escorts, a linguation of lesbians, a changeling of trannies, an intersection of bisexuals. Oh, yes: a mildew of closet queens. A panic of heteros.
For devilish kicks: A cesspool of homophobes. A molehill of televangelists. A godsend of gay-bashers. A purgatory of preachers. A damnation of fundygelicals. A rapture of body snatchers. A spitload of busybodies.