Saturday, May 30, 2009

Collective Nouns ("Terms of Venery")

My friend Kaity Tong's blog (Are YOU Smarter Than a Sixth Grader?) got me to look deeper into collective nouns. We all know that we refer to a group of fish as a "school" and a group of elephants as a "herd." Well, what do you call a group of crows? Kaity's 6th grader knew: it's "a murder of crows."

Where did such terms come from - and why are they needed?

Intrigued, I immediately Googled "collective nouns" and found numerous listings. I eventually found a reference to James Lipton's book An Exaltation of Larks and quickly borrowed a copy from my local library (as a user, I can attest that the Columbus Metropolitan Library has earned its rating as #1 public library system in the U.S.). In this wonderful book, Lipton describes his research into these terms and provides almost 1200 of them - the most definitive list I've come across - with some of their origins.

Lipton advocates calling such descriptors of groups of things "terms of venery," noting that "collective nouns" would be a misnomer, confusing them with words such as "majority" (and committee, team, family, etc.). He justifies "venery" from its etymology signifying "the hunt" and this is where such descriptors originated in the English language: from books of the 1400s, The Egerton Manuscript (1450) and The Book of St. Albans (1486), that provided the earliest surviving lists of these terms and these related primarily to game animals, though also to people and 15th century life. He also described the 15th century as a period in which the English language exploded with new words, providing a new descriptive richness to the language.

Some terms have become so idiomatic, they don't sound like collective nouns. A litter of pups. A month of Sundays. A mountain of debt. A hill of beans. A head of steam. A can of worms. A baptism of fire. An embarrassment of riches.

So that's where these terms came from. Why were they needed? Why isn't "group" enough of a modifier to describe any collection of objects? Since most of these terms of venery are unique to their objects, aren't they superfluous?

Alas, here Lipton provides less information (and my Google search provided nothing more). He cites Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1906) suggesting "for every collection of beasts ... there is their own private name so that none may be confused with another." Closer to the period of their origin, in the 1400s, inventing terms of venery had become a somewhat of a game and of social commentary. (A rascal of boys. A gaggle of women. A pontificality of prelates. A blast of hunters. A drift of fishermen.) Not knowing the correct term was an indication of ones lack of education and breeding. (What would you think of someone who referred to "a school of elephants?")

Lipton himself advocates use of such terms to retain the beauty and richness of the English language - the essence of poetry. Terms of venery illuminate the object to which they refer - they "add something to the equation." Lipton points out that Shakespere's The Comedy of Errors is a group term, as is "a sea of troubles" (Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 1). He notes "the poet came up with a more imaginative term" and cites a couple of dozen other terms in publications from the Bible to New York Magazine in which authors have continued to play the Game of Venery. (George Plimpton: An om of Buddhists. Neil Simon: A mews of cathouses. Kurt Vonnegut: A phalanx of flashers. And the unattributed: An obstinacy of buffaloes. A tower of giraffes. A pomp of Pekingese. A wobble of bicycles. A dawdling of waiters. A mass of Bostonians. A spread of Texans. An upyours of New Yorkers.)

It is these newer, unfamiliar venerial terms that trouble me. While they are clever, I have difficulty envisioning them becoming so popular that they will eventually become a natural part of speech. And this brings me back to my "why" question. While Lipton decries - as do I - the dumbing down of Americans and the loss of English literacy, given the losing battles of over grammar, usage, and spelling, will the public suffer the need to memorize further peculariarities of the English language for the sake of advancing the poetry of the language?

To go further, into territory only obliquely mentioned in Lipton's book: How extensively do other languages employ terms of venery?

In the very little Chinese I learned as a child, I recall that there are such terms in the Chinese language. These "modifiers" typically accompany the noun and often refer to quantity or measure. There's a generic modifier ("ge"), but use of a modifier specific to the noun is far preferred. My mother cautioned me that to use "ge" instead of the specific modifier is a sign of lack of education. As an American-born Chinese, learning Chinese was tough enough without having to learn a gaggle of modifying terms! Perhaps that's why I gave up studying Chinese (much to my later regret).

So there's an answer parallel with the English "why" question: to indicate degree of education. But the Chinese language has a much more fundamental reason for having such modifiers. Because Chinese is a largely monosylabic language, so many Chinese words sound like other Chinese words with completely different meanings (homonyms). Using modifiers helps distinguish among the many objects that would otherwise sound like other objects. As in the rest of the Chinese language, the context in which a word appears with other words helps the listener interpret what is being said. Hence, there's a very good reason why the Chinese language needs terms of venery.

But in English, words for objects don't often sound like other such words, so avoiding confusion isn't a good justification for adding complexity to the language. At this point, I can only speculate as to other reasons. English, as a relatively young language, may have borrowed the use of modifiers such as terms of venery from other languages. Lipton acknowledges such borrowing in his book, citing examples of words borrowed from the French. Going deeper then, how widely do Latin and Greek (the basis of most English words) and other world languages (from which the English may have borrowed) use terms of venery? I have no idea, but I now have a new topic of discussion for future cocktail parties in which I might find myself in the company of a babel of foreign language scholars. Hoorah!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jules Alexander & Tiger Woods

I had the pleasure of meeting Jules Alexander last Sunday at K.S. & Gina Liu's lunch and home at the Trump National Golf Course in Briarcliff Manor, NY. Jules recently published his book Tiger Woods in Black & White, a large format volume of his photos of the renowned golfer which he has taken over the past 9 years.

I got to learn about Jules and his book talking over lunch at the Trump Clubhouse. He had published an earlier book of photos of the legendary golfer Ben Hogan in 1994 from photos he took 45 years earlier. He self-funded the preparation of both these books, following the golfers around on tour. Wanting to do the Tiger Woods book in black & white, he couldn't find a publisher to fund his expenses for the book - they wanted color photos. When it was done and they saw how beautiful it was, they wanted to publish it.

Now age 83, Jules has been taking pictures for over 70 years. He told me stories of his studios in NYC and I was pleased that I knew where his favorite studio was: In the Beaux Arts building across from Bryant Park (I've passed it many times while shopping in the area), with its north-facing windows providing wonderful light. We also chatted about both our experiences working with the Ansel Adams studio and learning of his techniques.

Jules' photos of Tiger were taken without prior arrangement or permission. He operated as a freelance journalist, so he was permitted to be inside the ropes. He'd set himself in position at a hole and await the golfers. He showed me a photo he took of Tiger where he had earlier positioned Gina so she would be clearly visible in the crowd in the photo he took. Jules works without an assistant, lugging all his equipment around himself (now, a digital Nikon D3 with a 200mm telephoto and 1.4x telextender), since the assistant wouldn't be allowed to work inside the ropes with him, so he has to have his equipment with him anyway.

I was delighted that I got to help Jules print out some large 13x19" prints on K.S.'s home printer. We had to transfer images from Jules' MacBook Pro (same model as mine) to K.S.'s desktop Mac and PC computers to print with his large Epson printer. K.S. hadn't used the printer for some time, so we had to play with the setup of both desktop computers. We eventually got the Mac to work with the printer, using Photoshop to adjust the photos. It took about 3 hours for the 3 of us to get this all figured out (while Mom, Gina, and others of K.S.'s and Gina's family patiently waited). We wasted a few sheets of Jules' large pro paper (at $5/sheet), but we eventually got the prints done. We finally quit after the Epson ran out of ink.

Jules was especially happy to have gotten a print out of the photo he took of two beautiful girls he took the week earlier so he could present it to the girls' mother.

I'm glad I was of some assistance. Jules' photos are spectacular! I'm honored that he autographed the copy of his book that K.S. gave me, plus one of the new large Tiger prints that he's going to include in his next book.

K.S. also gave me a print of one of his own photos of a wonderful leopard that hangs in his computer workroom.

What wonderful treasures to remind me of two very talented photographers - one professional, one amateur - and a delightful afternoon together!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why Study the Arts?

We must ensure that fine and performing arts are an integral part of everyone's education. That's the proposition advanced by two national commissions on the Arts in Education on which I've served - one sponsored by the Education Commission of the States, and the other, by the College Board.

In this era of severe "reductionism" - of taking everything down to its presumed basics and single-mindedly focusing on the most important of these - education in the arts has suffered. Yet there is so little that many non-arts educators and education policy makers really understand about the importance of arts education.

Art education is about far more than learning to draw or play a musical instrument. Numerous research studies have found that kids who are engaged in arts courses do better in their other courses - including the "all important" mathematics and English language arts - than those who are not. But more, arts education develops abilities that aren't addressed in the "core" academic subjects. An 11-minute video prepared by the Arts Education Partnership for its 10th Anniversary in 2005 offers some observations by knowledgeable educators and policy makers on this importance (I'm honored to appear a few times):

So why study the arts? Continuing on the hierarchy of learning lists that I started in Why Study Algebra? and Why Study History?, education in the performing arts develops students' abilities in coordination, teamwork and harmony, and interpretation. The fine arts develop abilities in depiction, dealing with differences, creativity, and emotion. Or, as a professor at the Columbus College of Art and Design once suggested to me, the arts teach us about our soul. And for those who no longer pursue the experiential education of creating art, we can certainly benefit from the personal enrichment and enjoyment of appreciating it.

These are vitally important abilities and understandings in this 21st century. Of course, some may be developed through other educational means. But they probably cannot be developed so readily in students so early in their studies through other disciplines.

A demonstration of these propositions is presented in the achievements of TED Prize winner Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of "El Sistema," a youth orchestra education system that has transformed hundreds of thousands of kids' lives in Venezuela. Just watch and listen for a few moments and you'll be inspired by the virtuosity of poor and middle class kids there in this arts program, in a recent TED broadcast:

As Sr. Abreu states in his TED Prize address: "In its essence, the orchestra and choir are much more than artistic structures; they are examples of schools and of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That's how they build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self-esteem, and foster ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its sense. This is why music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility, the forging of values, and in the training of youngsters to teach other kids." His further observations on the effect of his "El Sistema" music education program "in the personal/social circle, in the family circle, and in the community" are well worth contemplating as we seek to reform education in our own country.

Learning to come together with our differences: Isn't that an educational objective we should insist that everyone achieves? Let's be sure to start with all our kids - and also to remediate ourselves.