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An Exaltation of Larks

From the Shelf

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game, by James Lipton. N.Y.: Grossman Publishers. Illustrated. 118 pp.

YOU CANT fight the media. James Lipton wanted to enrich the language. He was disappointed by the failure of slang to make English more exciting. "No sweat and out of sight begin to lose their charm on the fiftieth hearing, and groovy, Ricky, wiggy, unreal, and wild, by pushing out nearly every other adjective in a generation's speech, don't expand the language, they diminish it," he says.

So Lipton went back to fifteenth century manuscripts and dug up terms for collections of birds and beasts and types of men which he wants to bring back into English usage. There is poetry in the sudden realization of a murmuration of starlings or an incredulity of cuckolds, Lipton says. Both of these, and of course an exaltation of larks, have credentials as good as a school of fish, Lipton points out.

A gentleman in the good old days would have known all the terms, "lest you should make some blunder at table, so that those who are wiser may have the laugh of you, and we who love you may be ashamed," a character in an Arthur Conan Doyle story says. Lipton threatens us with a simliar charge of ignorance: "The thesis of this book can be summed up very simply: when a group of ravens flaps by, you should, if you want to refer to their presence, say, 'There goes an unkindness of ravens.' Anything else would be wrong.."

Ah, but the media won't be cowed. Just recently, Craig Claiborne, food editor of the N.Y. Times, served up an "exaltation of pates," and a headline a few days ago heralded an "exaltation of sopranos." No, gentlemen, this is not the game. If we wished to point up the origin of the pates, we might serve up a gaggle (though, more strictly, geese are a gaggle only when on water; they are a skein when in flight, I don't know what they are on a plate, minced). More likely, it would have been wise to invent a term--a mouthwatering of pates when they're good, a sclerosis when they're not. As for sopranos, Lipton suggests a quaver of coluraturas and, behind them, a schrei of heldentenoren.

These last two are of Lipton's own making--he insists the classifying shouldn't have ended in 1486. In a final and separate section of the book, he does his own inventing: a complex of psychoanalysts, a failing of students, an unction of undertakers (a larger group: an extreme unction), a rise of mini-skirts. He even outlines production rules: onomatopoeia, habitat, comment, etc. Always, the first term must pinpoint a feeling we have about the group being described. For instance, Lipton rules out calling prostitutes an anthology of pros, because the humor lies in the second term--anthology makes no poetic comment on prostitutes (a flourish of strumpets just might squeak by).

Usually, the new terms are not nearly as much fun as the old. There is something very reassuring in the knowledge that badgers from a cete, and not a deceit as do lapwings. What could be more prophetic than Henry the Eighth's contemporaries pointing out a superfluity of nuns and an abominable sight of monks?

The book is superbly laid out and filled with delightful engravings "from the pens of such European artists," the end flap tells us, "as Granville and Durer along with numerous other unsigned works of the same genre." The other endflap tells us that Mr. Lipton is a playwright, actor, equestrian, jack-of-all-trades.

When a relative gave me the book, I went into ecstasies. When I tried some of the terms on my friends, they only smiled wanly. Ah well, as someone once wrote in recommending a murder mystery, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like. PETER D. KRAMER

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