terms of venery

Today, I was working with one of my students on her English assignment — a worksheet to underline collective nouns. It was rather tedious work: faculty, herd, fleet, a few others. But my student didn’t quite get it. She’s from China, and I gather that Chinese has characters that serve to distinguish different kinds of nouns when counted.

So I started to explain terms of venery, which are old English (but not Old English) terms for various groupings of birds and beasts. Some are familiar like a murder of crows; others are peculiar like a parliament of owls; still others make little sense without history, like an abomination of monks or a pontifica of prelates.

But on the other hand, it turned out to beca useful way to expose my student to about thirty new words in a very short time. The animal served as a shorthand for an idea, while the collective noun served as the idea itself. And she clearly remembers the new words better for having a visual to connect the word to — as the inventors of the game of venery intended.

A prickle of hedgehogs. A swarm of flies. A siege of herons. A bazaar of guillemots. A yoke of oxen. An exaltation of larks. A gaggle of geese. A babble of barbers. An audit of bookkeepers and a balance of accountants. An ostentation of peacocks. A pride of lions. A bevy of maidens. An abomination of monks. A peep of chickens. A charm of goldfinches. A school of fish. A shoal of herring. A banner of knights. A rookery of penguins. A waddle of geese or penguins.

She’s not at the point of being able to invent her own, like a “goggle of steampunks”. But we learned a tremendous number of words with useful properties beyond merely being collective nouns. I wonder if ESL teachers could make use of this to teach new vocabulary in English?

One comment

  1. Today in sixth grade, we talked about weird plural forms (“moose” and “moose,” for example). In one class, we got into a discussion of American Sign Language. This group loves to talk about language, which is pretty awesome for an English class!

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