Oct 012009



In my old “Webster’s Collegiate” dictionary, the letter combination “venery” appears (homonymically) under two entries.  The first of these states “the art, act, or practice of hunting” or “animals that are hunted: GAME.”  “Terms of venery,” as used in this Gallery Meltdown show (and sometimes elsewhere) means collective nouns for animals, whether or not these animals are or ever have been regarded as “game.”  Collections of such names are now generally a very mixed bag (itself a hunting term) as to mode of origin, conformity to some sort of reality, and generality of use.  Some are of ancient coinage and were in-crowd terms used by aristocrats addicted to “the hunt.”  Some of these are still in service (e.g., a herd of deer, a covey of quail), while others are now found only in various “lists.”  Very early on and up to the present, some terms of venery have been created for humorous effect (e.g., a piddle of puppies, a flaccidity of clams) and are not in general use.  In short, study of this subject provides riches for the etymologically fascinated.    Various terms of more recent vintage are used seriously but sometimes mostly regionally (e.g., a mob of kangaroos, a camp of flying foxes).  The most pleasant source of information on terms of venery, by the way, is James Lipton’s popular book “An Exaltation of Larks,” published in soft cover by Penguin Books.

As noted above, there is a second word, a homonym of “venery” as related to animal groupings.  In some cases both words could apply to one and the same situation, such as a mating aggregation of snakes (a slither) or of frogs and/or toads (an army, a knot).

A high proportion of terms of venery partake of unreality.  One type of unreality has to do with terms that appear in “lists” but nowhere else (e.g., an implausibility of gnus, a prickle of porcupines).  Another is terms for groups of kinds of animals that do not exist (e.g., a blessing of unicorns).  A third is for sorts of animals that never form groups (with the exception of a pair engaged in sexual congress, a pair involved in aggressive interaction, or a mother with still-dependent offspring).  Examples include a sneak of weasels and a streak of tigers.  (These terms are as oxymoronic as a commune of hermits.)  It seems strange, therefore, that such a venerable venereal term as skulk of foxes, supposedly developed by huntsmen familiar with the habits of their solitary vulpine quarry, would have ever been created.  (In this show, we use the term leash of foxes—equally unreal.)  Please note that the different sorts of unreality enumerated here are not mutually exclusive.

Ambiguity and uncertainty often attend the appropriateness of given usages of terms of venery.  Is a dray (or drey), supposedly designating a gathering of squirrels, actually such, or is it a nest made by a squirrel or squirrels, or both?  As Lipton’s text itself makes clear, this term clearly applies to the nest.  Period.  Thus this term partakes of a different aspect of the imaginary/unreal.  For that reason, we have taken the liberty of devising a new term for an accumulation of squirrels—a diversion of them.  (Actually, most sorts of garden variety squirrels do not form groups although one or more kinds of flying squirrels do get together in hibernating aggregations.)  Another term we use that may be unfamiliar to the venereal maven is a series of pheasants.  In natural history museums, a set of specimens of a given animal species, all collected at one place, constitute a series—and that could very well be the case with the museum cabinet stuffed pheasants depicted by Kirsten Huntley Gabbe.

Ronald H. Pine, Ph. D.
Visiting Scholar,
Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center
University of Kansas;
Research Associate, Field Museum;
Research Associate,
Museum ofTexas Tech University