Tilting At Windmills: Oh…My Word!
Published: December 16th, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: Oh…My Word!

It’s pretty easy to tell when I’m working on a book, because I become happily obsessed with words. They circle my head like sparrows looking for a place to land, and occasionally, I pluck one out of the sky, and stare at it, as if I’ve just discovered the portal to a magical land.

Years ago, Eve Merriam wrote an illustrated children’s book with the intriguing title A GAGGLE OF GEESE. Its purpose was to entertainingly inform readers of names given to groups of animals, fish, and birds. Some you already know, like “a pride of lions,” or “a herd of elephants.” Others are a revelation and a delight. Such as:

A cowardice of curs (imagine a bunch of mutts trembling in terror of a dog catcher).

A shrewdness of apes (I can see them sitting around a conference room table, planning to take over the world).

A smack of jellyfish (lurking in the water, getting ready to smack a stinger onto a succulent thigh).

An exaltation of larks. (Glorious. Need I say more?)

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Fascinated by the 26 names that I’d stumbled upon in Merriam’s book, I sought out others. In the course of my quest, I learned that such designations are called “terms of venery.” They originated in the late Middle Ages when hunters, while interacting with other living, breathing creatures (ones they probably planned to eat) gave them personalized names. Some are insightful and poetic, like “a charm of hummingbirds” or “a kaleidoscope of butterflies.” Others are knee-slappingly funny, like “a superfluity of Nuns” or “a prickle of porcupines.”

Most notable are:

A memory of elephants; an implausibility of gnu; a conspiracy of lemurs; a stubbornness of rhinoceroses; a harem of seals; a murder of crows; a convocation of eagles; an ostentation of peacocks; a pandemonium of parrots; a bask of crocodiles; a rhumba of rattlesnakes; a shiver of sharks; a dazzle of zebras, a parliament of owls, and a plague of locusts.

I had such fun wallowing in terms of venery that I got to thinking about words in general and euphonious ones in particular, the best examples of which are found in the poem, “The Bells.” The first stanza will give you an inkling of what I mean:

Hear the sledges with the bells—
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

I mean, really. Merriment. Crystalline. Tinkle. Twinkle. Oversprinkle. When a genius like Edgar Allan Poe wields a pen, he can paint a Sistine Chapel, or populate the sky with stars, using only words, words, words.

I re-read the “The Bells.” Musical syllables tintinnabulated in my head. I became lightheaded. Inspired. I decided to see if I could find a book like A GAGGLE OF GEESE, but one that dealt only with evocative words.

I searched in caves. I poked under carpets. I looked behind my first cousin’s bedroom bureau. And Lo and Behold, I found one!


A Guide to Astounding Your Friends with Exotic, Curious and Recherché Words.

By Russell Rocke

In his preface (he calls it a “Pre-Text,” which is about what you’d expect from a man who invented his own dictionary), the author says, “Word-love strikes each human being at one time or another; but unfortunately, only occasionally does he continue to cultivate his first infatuation. Perhaps he has never had a chance to sample the dizzying richness, the savor, the clout that the English language has to offer, has never realized that if our words are drab and uninteresting, we are the same. But if they are vigorous, exciting, and as infinite and delightful in variety as life itself, then we too shall excite and delight.”

What follows in Rocke’s dictionary are “beautiful specimens of limited usefulness” and words “whose rhythm and cadence are pleasing to the ear, irrespective of any meaning they convey to the mind.”

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The book is separated into ten sections. Among them are: Shapes, Semblances, and Resemblances; Bodily Processes and Characteristics; Nouns of Power; Esoterica. And so on. In keeping with the sense of humor demonstrated by Middle Age hunters as they named groups of giraffes (a tower) or sloths (a bed), I thought I should concentrate on section nine – Words of Whimsy.

Here are some highlights:

CARBECUE. A large oven for melting away unsalvageable material from a junked car, which is rotated on a spit.

DONTOPEDALOGY: The aptitude for putting one’s foot in one’s mouth.

GAWKOCRACY: Persons who watch television.

GONGOOZLER: An inquisitive idler who stares and gawks for prolonged periods at anything out of the ordinary.

STAGORIUM: An establishment (bar or resort hotel) that serves as a meeting place for unmarrieds.

UFOLOGIST: One who is interested in unidentified flying objects.

I guess that‘s about it. I would like to end this linguistic barrage with a bang, but I can’t think how. So, waving a fond “goodbye,” I employ a word from section four of THE GRANDILOQUENT DICTIONARY.

Quietly … I “melt away; gradually dissolve.”

I deliquesce.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com