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?

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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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