Question: What’s a writing project that’s turned out well for you, and what did you learn from it?
James Lipton:I cornered the market on the most peculiar habit of the English language, namely the designation of groups of things by a term. We all know a few, a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a host of angels, and we use them without thinking about them. A chorus of complaint. One day I suddenly thought to myself, why a gaggle of geese, why a pride of lions? A pride of lions – pride, really, it is the quintessence of a lion; he’s proud. Who said that we will capture the entire quintessence of this beast in a single word, a pride of lions? And that started me on a search that lasted for years. It took me finally to the bowels of the main reading room of the British museum where I was actually in possession, at last, of the original books of hunting in which these terms were compiled; principally The Book Of St. Albans. This is 15th century stuff. And I discovered it was a charm of finches, properly, when the only profession a gentleman could ever admit to was hunting. So he had to know the proper terms. He saw a charm of finches, an unkindness of ravens, a parliament of owls, an exaltation of larks, a leap of leopards. I mean, these are beautiful terms; an ostentation of peacocks. I was fascinated, and there they were, these lists that were compiled in the 15th century. Some of the first books every printed in England, it was that important.
And then I discovered a pontificality of prelates, a superfluity of nuns. And I thought, my god, they were playing word games with them in the 15th century. And I finally compiled all of the original terms with their provenances. And that took a lot of digging because most of them are in Middle English. So, I had to translate out of Middle English into modern English. And I fell in love with them and I began to invite my own. An acre of dentists. In the 15th century, they said a rascal of boys. So, I said an acne of adolescents, a lurch of buses, a slouch of models, and an unction of undertakers, in a larger group, an extreme unction of undertakers. And I couldn’t stop. It was like eating peanuts. And I wrote this big book, which became the definitive book on this subject and ultimately all the introductions that I wrote to the various sections of it became a love letter to this magnificent English language.
It’s been used as a textbook in countless schools. It’s been published all over the world. And you’ll have to forgive me for bragging, you can discount 50% of this because I’m saying it, but all the same, it is my letter to the world. And if people would ask me, is there one book that you’ve written that means the most to you, clearly it’s "An Exaltation of Larks."
Question: What is the collective term for actors?
James Lipton: There was in Shakespeare’s time also a collective term. They were called “a cry of players.” Isn’t that pretty? A cry of players. I decided that in my time, they would be a queue of actors. Q-U-E-U-E. A line. A queue of actors. That’s my term for it. Though I think a cry of players is probably a lot better.
Recorded February 9, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen