Maybe twenty baby gators crowded the restaurant’s yellow wall. Their tails flicked into C’s. Their plastic mother was not far away, on a wall abutting. Her mouth was agape and the little hunter greens followed mom’s example, all ostensibly shocked by Caitlin’s story or, could be, begging for bits of our burgers.
“She pulled a…a, a…,” Caitlin petered. Her face cramped. “Of condoms,” she pronounced. She blinked at Lynn and I sitting across the booth. Our friend looked horrified. “A what of condoms? When they’re still connected, what are they called?” Brown hair swung out from behind Caitlin’s right ear—curtain to eye and cheek.
Lynn with Lynnish aplomb turned to me. You’re the collective noun enthusiast. You should know.
I did not. But Lynn. You’re the one with the medical background. Lynn had worked for Planned Parenthood and knew condoms as singles in a fish bowl.
“The collective noun for condoms,” Caitlin intoned. “The collective noun for condoms.”
Three MFA writing students. Three people who would go out of their way to find le mot juste. Would prize it from the damp hip of a cave—pinch it from melon mush (a whole day spent dropping them on their heads, checking)—piece it from a lawnmower graveyard four odd states over. Who’d bring it back in waxed paper. Who’d peel the blanket and expect you to coo, dammit, coo.
In the preface to his 1993 edition of An Exaltation of Larks, James Lipton identifies six categories of collective noun:
1. Onomatopoeia: a murmuration of starlings, a gaggle of geese.
2. Characteristic (by far the largest Family): a leap of leopards, a skulk of foxes.
3. Appearance: a knot of toads, a parliament of owls.
4. Habitat: a shoal of bass, a nest of rabbits.
5. Comment (pro or con depending on viewpoint): a richness of martens, a cowardice of curs.
6. Error (in transcription or printing; sometimes preserved for centuries): “school” of fish was originally intended to be “shoal.”
This is a book never out of print since its publication in 1968. Whereas that edition put down 175 terms, the 1993 Ultimate Edition lists 1,100 collective nouns. A glory of collective nouns, can we just say?
The year 1486, Boke of Seynt Albans (The Book of St. Albans) became the first collection of nouns of multitude in English. And it was in England, in that 15th century Lipton tells us, when these nouns really proliferated. In the fifteenth century, the fecundity of the English language is a thing to behold. Imagine this world. Shakespeare will not coin the word “bedroom” for another century (though condoms have long existed in Europe). It is an etymological Spring, says Lipton, “that can only be compared in importance and scope to the intellectual effusions of Periclean Greece or cinquecento Italy.” In the 15th century, collective nouns are doing with the gentlemen’s hunts; they are terms of venery.
A skulk of foxes.
A badling of ducks.
A cete of badgers.
If, in the beginning, collective nouns were fashioned for animals, you needn’t be an honest-to-God animal anymore. Six hundred years later the hunt is for the right word.
More I thought about it. The other definition for “venery” being sexual indulgence was perfect. Why shouldn’t condoms have preoccupied my friends and me?
“A rosary! A rosary of condoms.” I waited for applause.
L: “What is the matter with you?”
“But it’s hysterical,” I whined. I watched Caitlin’s face. Watched her judge then forgive me for using hysterical instead of hilarious. But Irish Caitlin was offended by a rosary of condoms. No, not really. Though it would have to be something easy, was her thinking. Like roll, string, or line.
I felt strongly it should speak to how condoms link up like sausages.
Lynn was sitting so still. Her blonde, tightly wound curls buzzed as live wires. She was thinking. Above us, the gators were an eager congregation (congregation is the collective noun for alligators). They on that yellow river wall were watchful, and esurient.
“Language is a zoo,” Holly Woodward has said, “and you feed bits of yourself to the words.” And would if all the little alligators would say, Amen. Because the last stage of a medieval hunt was the curée, when raw game bits were thrown to the dogs (a kennel) (if they are hounds they are a cry)—all I wanted to do was feed the gators.
Caitlin was texting. Without looking up, she said someone had voted “sleeve.”
Booo. An individually packaged condom, that. Can we please remember they’re perforated?
Lynn spoke, “Like arcade tickets.”
Yes! Good. (How they fold over….. Almost accordion…..) It dawned. Accordion.
L & C’s heads bobbed. Not bad.
I swigged my IPA. I slipped the paper cummerbund off a napkin. Caitlin handed over a pen and a list began. Chain???
Belt. Think chastity belt.
Magazine. Think Rambo’s ammunition.
L: “In case you need to reload?”
Hah. I stared at the crown molding. A crown molding of condoms.
A zigzag? A tail? A ribbon? A scarf? Sash, might be necklace?
Let it be a staircase of condoms.
Let it be a vertebrate of condoms.
Be a hemline.
Weren’t those like scenes in stories? Didn’t they intimate stories?
“You need to stop,” Lynn told me.
But I am a freak, Lynn. I like D’Agata. (We agree that means something. John D’Agata does things with language arguably inappropriate. To say the least, he plays. I should ask John D’Agata what he thinks the collective noun for condoms is.)
We asked Steve Jobs (which is to say we asked Siri). We queried oracle of oracles Google. We consulted bff’s—one of whom is in pharmaceutical school—Trojan’s website, CVS’s website, and Urban Dictionary. One of us asked the editor-in-chief of a celebrated magazine. He offered:
a bevy of condoms?
a surplus of condoms?
a wall of condoms?
Bevy?! Mister Editor, sir that seems apt in no way.
Wondered a gnat (it’s a cloud of gnats) in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “What’s the use of them having names if they won’t answer to them?” “What really connects words and things?” Anne Carson has questioned. The use of them. What really?
Collective nouns strike me as another chance for a name, in case, after all, the rose doesn’t smell as sweet. In case something should feel like a misnomer, try again. Collective nouns are a second chance to be known. And there you go. Here you are. A naming this time which is truly aphoristic. In an assemblage, you should ask what is the most outstanding aspect. The “quintessential part,” coaxes Lipton. A great collective noun captures the soul of the individual in the group.
Lipton: they are about “large illuminations in small flashes.”
But he is wary of collective nouns that pun, which he thinks wreck the determination. I imagine Lipton remonstrating. His goodly narrator’s voice framed by his Inside the Actors Studio beard. Stop laughing, he says. This is seriously beautiful, he says. Zip! But please, not zingers. I think Lipton would not approve of us.
To the girls: “A tongue? That’s awful, is it?”
“That’s awful,” said Lynn.
Caitlin moaned. “It’s a gaggle.”
My eyelids like guillotines dropped. “It is not a gaggle.”
“An escalator?” I ventured.
“Absolutely not!” Lynn pooh-poohed.
“I’m asking Alexis,” Caitlin said. “Alexis has China wisdom.”
(We all knew Alexis is Singaporean.)
“She says a sausage link.”
Me: “I said that, see. It’s funny.”
Time printed what may be the only joke about collective nouns in their September 19th, 1955 issue:
Four dons were walking down an Oxford street one evening. All were philologists and members of the English department. They were discussing group nouns: a covey of quail, a pride of lions, an exaltation of larks.
As they talked, they passed four ladies of the evening. The dons did not exactly ignore the hussies—in a literary way, that is. One of them asked: “How would you describe a group like that?”
Suggested the first: “A jam of tarts?” The second: “A flourish of strumpets?” The third: “An essay of Trollope’s?” Then the dean of the dons, the eldest and most scholarly of them all, closed the discussion: “I wish that you gentlemen would consider ‘An anthology of pros.’”
Then consider an episode of the British comedy Not the Nine O’clock News, “Gerald the Gorilla” (1979). Behind a coffee table on which sit yellow silk daffodils (a bouquet), there’s a beige blazer of a professor in one chair, and, to his right, a man in a hirsute suit; their legs cross genteelly. How did Gerald get on without his family? Their gorgeous blonde interviewer wants to know.
“Well,” answers the professor, “to begin with, Gerald did make various attempts to contact his old flange of gorillas.”
Gerald interrupts: “It’s a whoop, professor. A whoop. It’s a flange of baboons!”
The skit was so popular, now, primatologists commonly call a group of baboons—technically “a troupe”—a flange. Does Lipton know about this?
In 1989, Louis Phillips, in Volume 78, Number 3 of The English Journal, said, “Still, the time may be upon us to add some new collectives to the list.” A split of divorce lawyers. A cram of students, he went on. “And what would a dictionary call a collection of light-hearted pieces such as this?” Phillips asked. “A blot of verbs?”
There exists a newer organization called All Sorts, “a linguistic experiment” in association with the West Port Book Festival, held in Edinburgh. All Sorts is asking for charisma. They ask we propose modern collective nouns. So we go play. And among the duds, such pearls do result:
“an icarus of global warming deniers”
“a zsa zsa of exes”
“a one of tiggers”
“an eyjafjallajökull of complications”
“a rumour of macs”
“an angelina jolie of adopted children”
“a gentrification of baristas”
“a seemingly empty room of ninjas”
“an azure of smurfs”
“a bell jar of suicides”
“a papier mâché of to-do lists”
“a bloodbath of track changes”
“a sic of editors”
“an iteration of collective nouns”
“an art of collective nouns”
“an obsessive of collective nouns”
On the question of condoms, contributors have only advanced “a baby of split condoms,” and “a caligula of condoms.” Caligula the Roman Emperor from 37 AD to 41 AD, whose incestuous relationship with his three sisters and seeming end goal to turn the palace into a brothel has been much talked about in the centuries since. But collective nouns can do that, appoint the past to the present like that. An icarus of global warming deniers. And hearing it, do we shudder? We probably do. Collective nouns can do that, make things seem really real. They are believable.
And actually, there are collective nouns for things you wouldn’t believe. Comic artist David Malki!—who spells his name with an exclamation point, which he considers an honorific, and uses “in the same manner as ‘Jr.’ or ‘PhD’”—creates from 19th-Century woodcuts and engravings, which he scans in from a collection of old books or from Los Angeles Central Library volumes. Malki! has adapted “The Stoakes-Whibley Natural Index of Supernatural Collective Nouns.” “For Holiday or Everyday!” he says. And we note:
A blanket of poltergeist (Spectral Class).
A chimney of djinns (Demon Class).
A sleigh of Santa Claus (Elven Class).
A pantheon of gods (Heavenly Class).
A jake of Jedi (Human Class).
A nervousness of AIs (Mechanical Class).
A doubting of Cyclopses (Monster Class).
An industry of villains (Psychotic Class).
A pension of aliens (Foreign Class).
A braid of chimeræ (Wildlife Class).
A basement of vampires (Undead Class).
A duty of Frankenstein’s monsters (Irregular).
The girls and I left the burger joint. Technically, the restaurant had already closed.
Outside, scuffing the cobble-stoned sidewalk: “A pathway?”
Oh, the looks Lynn can give.
We moved to some curbside seating.
Garland. Imagine condoms decking the gymnasiums of Sadie Hawkins dances.
Caitlin said “streamer.” We all loved “streamer,” so onomonopia. Screamer. Stream—we could have gone on. Instead, we went home.
Proposals for the collective noun for condoms are still trickling in. Two days after the burger joint, a sea of people turn out for a free concert in the park. We pass Hannah, who’s heard about our talk. “A reel!” she shouts. She turns back. “Or a ream!”
When Nina comes to visit Lynn, she says “a skein.” Nina had earlier texted “yard.” She wonders. Perhaps you can buy condoms by the yard. At JoAnn’s Fabrics? (She discovers you can buy rulered condoms.)
Matt, someone freshly minted from comedy school: “A compromise of condoms.”
James, our department chair, seconds magazine. Might be bandolier. Might be gang bang.
My boyfriend recommends a weekend of condoms.
After I’ve explained myself to Joel, a potter who experiments with form: “Then shouldn’t it be an essay of condoms?”
Look how we play with our language. How it putties in our hands. Is our favorite toy, even. Our heartsong out loud. This is how we wax.
Lipton signs off in his introduction:
I have two earnest hopes: one, that the evangelist tone of this preface will be forgiven; and, two, that a few from Parts III and IV—and even from Part V—will stick to our ribs and be ingested into our speech. If they do, it isn’t just that we will be able to turn to someone and coolly and correctly say, “Look—a charm of finches.” What is more important is that a charm of poetry will have slipped quietly into our lives.
Well, that’s right.
One of my professors has tendered a gross. 4th grade, his friend reaches into a drawer of his father’s nightstand and pulls out what I imagine that father calls rubbers. That friend grows up to be a man who says they’re a gross of condoms, so economic. He grows up, in fact, to become a condom distributor. “Gross” is a purveyor’s word. A gross of bottle rockets or could be anything—whatever’s selling.
Right now, Fifty Shades of Grey is bestselling. Caitlin refers me to Chapter 8. Christian Grey “opens the top drawer of the chest and removes a packet of condoms.” My knee-jerk response is, since E.L. James is saying packet, I’m against it.
It is not poetry. Not what you hear as tuning in the narrow corridors of your bones.