On Our Bookshelves – An Exaltation of Larks

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BOOK: An Exaltation of Larks–the Ultimate Edition

AUTHOR: James Lipton

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1991 (original edition published in 1968)

REVIEW:

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An Exaltation of Larks is a collection, by James Lipton (yes, that James Lipton) of what he calls “terms of venery,” (for an explanation of that, look to his introduction) and what the rest of us call “collective nouns.”  And yes, since these terms were first popularized in the fifteenth century, various lovers of words have been collecting them, making games of them, publishing lists of them, and enjoying them. From the familiar (school of fish, litter of pups, fleet of ships, round of drinks, gaggle of geese) to the more unusual but charming (murder of crows, parliament of owls, coven of witches, unkindness of ravens, crash of rhinoceroses), to the terms so routine that we forget how poetic they are (flight of stairs, embarrassment of riches, sea of troubles), to the modern ones he may have made up of whole cloth (a march of museums, a grandiloquence of yachts, a marvel of unicorns, a swamp of junk mail), it’s an entertaining compendium.

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The author explains his purpose here:

The heart and soul of this book is the concern that our language, one of our most precious natural resources, is also a dwindling one that deserves at least as much protection as our woodlands, wetlands and whooping cranes.

With the keenest, most powerful linguistic instrument at our disposal, our language shrinks, not at the highest level of intellectual life, where the endangered species is bred and kept alive, like Siberian tigers in a zoo, but at nearly every level below it. Motion pictures, radio and television, contemporary language’s primary delivery systems, deliberately, by tacit fiat, make do with the vocabulary of the common denominator toward which they are aimed, a legitimate business strategy, a damaging linguistic one. By the age of nineteen, the average American has logged 11,000 hours in school and 15,000 hours in front of the television tube, listening to the same few hundred hackneyed words in listless rotation.

Clearly a labor of love, Lipton’s explanatory narratives concerning the course of his research are witty and wordy, pointing out that the English language is particularly (and peculiarly) receptive to borrowing vocabulary from other languages. Flexible and omnivorous, English has historically gobbled up words and that richness enhances our literature and our lives.  Some of Lipton’s references are now a bit out of date, and a few of his jokes have aged poorly, but overall, the gentle humor and sincere joy to be found here make this anthology a treat.   It’s also rather lovely to look at, with gorgeous  engravings; the book and illustration design is credited to Kedakai Lipton (the author’s wife).

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Buy a copy for someone who loves words, books, language, bookstores, and found poetry.

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 1/2 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House

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