The Exaltation of Wordplay

Question: What’s a writing project that’s turned out well for you, and what did you learn from it?

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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.

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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.

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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."

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Question: What is the collective term for actors?

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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

The Actors Studio dean once wrote the definitive text on group nouns ("An Exaltation of Larks"). So what is a group of actors called?

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

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  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.