If you find yourself browsing a bookshelf as a guest in a beautiful home and come across a volume that declares itself “an innocent summer ramble through unfamiliar fields,” find a nearby chair and read further.
If the next sentence disclaims that “any discoveries made along the way are fortuitous and no enlightenment is promised,” ensure you have a drink by your side — with a coaster, because that’s the kind of guest you aspire to be.
The book in question is An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game by James Lipton. Yes, the same James Lipton who hosted Inside the Actor’s Studio. In 1968, when he was a mere “author, playwright, lyricist, translator, director, choreographer, actor, equestrian” (as per dust jacket), he published this thin collection that “began as a kind of hobby that grew into a passion and finally a book.” His obsession was with “nouns of multitude,” which he insists on calling “terms of venery,” an ancient word for hunting. Like venereal disease? Yes, a double meaning he leans on rather intently. But we’ll forgive it, mainly because his insistence on clear rules for these charming nouns hits the Get Wit Quick sweet spot.
These terms are often characteristic (a leap of leopards), occasionally onomatopoeic (a gaggle of geese), sometimes critical (a murder of crows), and once in a while just wrong (it was supposed to be a shoal of fish, but we all got schooled by a typo).
The earliest of these collective nouns date back to fifteenth century England, when bored aristocrats just returned from the hunt came up with names for the groups of animals they’d seen. Lipton explores and extends the tradition, and in doing so stresses that the product isn’t as important as the process.
“The term of venery is a searchlight that illuminates something for us, letting us see it with fresh insight, or as if for the first time,” he writes.
They must offer “large illuminations in small flashes,” in the way that a parliament of owls “gives us a valuable quiddity of owls.”
“If the proper, poetic, illuminating term happens to be alliterative with the group it is describing, well and good; but if it is not, nothing is lost, and there may be a clearer focus on the main thing, with its gingery secret.”
Like most rules of this sort, there are so many exceptions that the actual utility is questionable. The aim is a revelation, not a joke, which is where it qualifies as wit. But if a good joke presents itself, Lipton says bag it. If you’re out to catch a bouquet of pheasants, you don’t say no to a hover of trout. The result is a digressive attempt to assign some rules to an ephemeral delight, with the knowledge that it’s probably futile and the conviction that it’s still worth the effort. Just like this newsletter!
And so we end with Lipton’s mantra, one to repeat as you mix a gin and tonic during the golden hour of an August afternoon: “Simplicity is the goal and distillation is the way.”
Quick quips; lightning
“Reality is a collective hunch.”
— Lily Tomlin
“My plastic surgeon told me my face looked like a bouquet of elbows.”
— Phyllis Diller
“All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.”
— Samuel Butler
The gingery secrets of Get Wit Quick No. 111 may be discussed by a disagreement of statesmen, shelved by a hush of librarians, studied by a brow of scholars, and defaced by a riffraff of knaves. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was reviewed by a shrivel of critics and disputed by a wrangle of philosophers. Smack that ❤️ below like it’s a jellyfish.