At Flannery’s Bar on 14th and 7th in Manhattan there were three sacred books. This was, mind you, before the ubiquity of handheld access to the internet, truly a primitive age. One was The Complete and Definitive Record of Major League Baseball. One was Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia: Career Profiles of More than 2000 Actors and Filmmakers, Past and Present. The last was a 3000-page monster known officially as The Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged.
Around the bar it was plainly referred to as “The Big Dic.”
The bar was large enough to have specific geography and tribal alliances. The guys at the north end of the bar, The Commish, Seamus, Postman Joe, were more likely to settle arguments and bets with either the movie encyclopedia or (if Poetry Larry, the Artiber-in-Chief of all things Quadrangular, was not present) they might reference the baseball book for a final ruling on if the ’78 Yankees pitching staff had a lower overall ERA than the ’79 Phillies (bullpen included).
The denizens up north, good friends all, were mostly working guys, or retired guys, or guys on disability. Down on the balmy southern stools sat our clan of overly educated, but still quite pleasant, teachers, animators, architects, journalists and even one poet. We tended to use the dictionary more often. Enough so that Fergal the Barman, tired of lugging its 15 pounds back and forth several times a night, declared in his Galway accent upon a summer’s evening that “Frum now fookin’ on, it’s this fookin’ book that lives wit yous,” pushing a stack of Village Voice from the corner of the bar onto the floor and dropping it with a thud, before turning on his heels and heading back north.
The Big Dic was there for idling through on an afternoon, or (like any bar book) to settle a bet, but its most common use was for a game we called Fictionary. I’ve mentioned the game to friends over the years and they assure me that there is some marketed version now available from Parker Brothers, but, well, for me it just wouldn’t be the same if I were sober and it didn’t involve pulling out The Big Dic and slapping it on the bar.
You can play Fictionary with three, but four to six makes for a much better game. Pints of Guinness and shots of whiskey are ordered, and then — this is crucially important — scoring is argued over for at least 20 minutes, resolving with a new and intricate system that no one would bother to keep, anyway.
Rituals are important.
Round one would begin when one of us, normally John McCloskey Moynihan, would randomly open the dictionary and scan for a word that he figured that none of us knew. He was acting as “the sorter.” We were “the players.” The general code of conduct on the players’ side was to fess up if you knew the term he selected, so the sorter wouldn’t waste his time. It was also considered gauche for the sorter to choose a word with a strictly scientific etymology.
After a few moments, John would choose his word, write down its actual meaning on a bar napkin, then read the word to the rest of us:
The players would then have 3 minutes or so, depending on how thirsty we were, to come up with a false but believable definition in an attempt to fool the other players.
We would all scribble on bar napkins and then put our answers in a hat. The sorter would then pull them out and read them one by one.
“Slumgullion: is it, A) A localism for a beggarchild in 19th-century Calcutta? Is it, B) A sheath of protective fibers surrounding nerve endings at the base of the spinal column? Is it, C) The refuse from processing whale carcasses? Or is it, D) A deceitful, unreliable scoundrel?”
We’d then write down our answers on a separate piece of paper for tallying. You’d win a point if you correctly identified the answer as “C) the refuse from processing whale carcasses,” and you’d never again forget that horrible word. Further research would indicate that slumgullion is also a form of thin stew, one — now knowing the connection to whale carcasses — you will be less likely to order should it appear on the menu someday.
You’d also receive a point if someone guessed your false answer. The sorter would be awarded three points (or two, or four, depending on the outcome of the argument before the game) if no one was able to guess the proper response. If everyone guessed your false definition, you’d either get double points, or maybe someone would pay for your next round. Again, we cared about arguing over the rules, not following them.
Either way, more booze would be purchased, The Big Dic would pass clockwise around the group, and we’d begin anew.
Sadly, that group of friends from Flannery’s scattered over the interceding years. John died; Jen had a kid, Cliff and The Wee Lass had one, too; Anselm moved to Maine; Bob couldn’t keep up the two-hour nightly commute to Far Rockaway; even Poetry Larry pulled up stumps and moved out to Colorado — a bar bet that no one in their right mind ever would have taken.
I miss the Fictionary nights and sitting around the bar with The Big Dic between us. They were, as Fergal the Barman’s people would say, rare old times.
That those folks are no longer there, defining the southern outpost of Flannery’s bar, goes a part of the way to explaining why I’m no longer living in New York City. The better part of the move was inspired by the loss of a job and a girl, but that my cry of barhounds was scattered to the winds only made leaving Gotham that much easier.
There’s a simple rule in the bar and in life: If you hang out with stupid people long enough, you’re sure to get into a fight. If you spend your time with smart people, eventually you’re going to end up playing word games. It’s not the most valuable rule, but it is true. It is a divide in the species as real as gender or wiggleable ears.
One of the reasons why, when I moved to Antigua, that I knew I had found a home, was the slurry linguistic bond I forged with the expatriates who assembled most nights at either Mono Loco or Café No Sé, and at Reilly’s on Sundays for pub quiz. Fictionary wasn’t going to fly with this group (there was no dic big enough in town to provide the proper fodder for a continually entertaining game), but they had folly of their own.
One game that lasted for several weeks with the Antigua crew was the communal, drunken invention of their own collective nouns. It had been running for a few sessions when I came on the scene, and I’m fuzzy on details, but I do recall that it had been turned into a very minimalist drinking game. When I say minimalist drinking game, what I mean is that after you fired one into the kitty, if everyone laughed they would raise a glass and we’d all drink. If it fell flat, you’d look like an ass, and then we’d all drink. Bases covered.
A bunch of them were hilarious, but the ones that stick out most prominently in my memory are a stumble of drunks, an availability of Dutch girls, and my all-time favorite, a discount of hookers.
As you either knew already, or are now clocking into, a collective noun is the name of a number of people or things taken together and spoken of as one whole. Some of them we just grow up with: a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese. Some of them we hear along the way and remember because they are kinda cool: a parliament of owls, a murder of crows. And some we make a point of remembering because screwing about with language is what revs our engines: a murmuration of starlings, an implausibility of gnus, a hover of trout.
Collective nouns are pretty awesome. They are a sparingly used form of speech that conjures magic in language. Moreover, collective nouns are democratic. Fictionary aside, we generally can’t decide to alter the meaning of words on our lonesome. When I see Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian I might WANT the common expression “socialite” to be replaced with “tragi-skank,” but it’s not likely to catch on by single use. Though, you never know, so fingers crossed! If each of us had a media empire and a political party to keep repeating our word substitutions ad nauseam, then maybe we too could transmute “fat cats” into “job creators,” but from our low positions on this totem, we’ll not likely have too much success.
Introducing wholly new words is also difficult, if for no other reason than most everything already has a name. Once, thirty-five years ago, while playing a form of Calvinball on a Scrabble board at summer camp, my older brother Jay coined an entirely new term. His word, “pantia,” which means, “underwear heaven,” is linguistic perfection. Pantia is the place where all your missing socks and worn out jockeys go once you’ve left them (or they’ve left your) behind. It’s the home to every lingering memory of lingerie lost. It is a hopeful place where the laundry is always clean, and the sun always shines. Writ short: It’s a damn fine word. It fills a niche like no other word had done before, and yet, still, after three decades of trying, it has not passed into common use. (Here, reader, you can help. The next time someone wonders what has happened to a sock in the dryer, tell them with complete earnestness that the unmatched pair has “gone home to pantia.” Then smile beatifically. We may win this battle, yet!)
But the collective noun is a far more accessible egress point for our creative energies. It is a democratic doorway. A public portal, as attested by my Antigua friends all those years ago, through which anyone who is smart enough can walk. Think about it: who is going to correct you if you — being fully within your rights as an English-speaking citizen of the world — if you refer to those beasties over there on the veldt as an arrogance of lions, rather than a pride. Maybe you just know them better.
Recently I was sharing a bottle with one of the original members of the “write your own collective noun” sessions, Brendan Byrne. He recalled a few more to me, and we slapped a few new ones around for good measure. Then, arriving home from the bar to WiFi and Facebook access (how the world has changed in 8 years), I was able to keep the thread going by posting a request on to friends who might want to help me write this story.
Fortunately, I had another bottle of rum en casa, so I was able to stay up for several more hours, compiling the lists I now share with you. They’ve been culled and shaped a bit (I think some of the participants-at-a-distance were in their cups at the time, too), and they are given in the spirit of those who know that language is a living thing, and that some of the best moments are filled with nothing more than a bit of booze and some brilliant conversation.
1. A collusion of bankers.
2. A legend of cartographers.
3. A ream of bureaucrats.
4. A set of mathematicians.
5. An absence of waiters.
6. A slither of spies.
7. A squint of proofreaders.
8. A fondle of priests.
1. A tedium of golfers.
2. A trudge of pilgrims.
3. A delusion of astrologers.
4. A shuttle of tourists.
5. A parole of bikers.
6. A spread of nymphomaniacs.
1. A formality of Brits.
2. A politeness of Canadians.
3. A denial of Turks.
4. A leverage of Greeks.
5. An obscenity of Russians.
6. An obesity of Americans.
7. A gloup of Chinese.
1. A cabinet of Etonians.
2. An obstinacy of conservatives.
3. A growl of progressives.
4. A flimsy of politicians.
5. An anomaly of statesmen.
The Seven Ages:
1. A slimy of newborns.
2. A tantrum of toddlers.
3. An ejaculation of teenagers.
4. A chatter of women.
5. A gruff of men.
6. An impotence of elders.
7. A silence of corpses.
As Yet Uncategorized:
1. A flutter of optimists.
2. An emptiness of eunuchs.
3. A slough of lepers.
4. A futility of Cubs.
5. An avarice of billionaires.
6. A ubiquity of sparrows.
And finally, from Kennef Tang, an Antigua drunk — who has since married his sweetheart, had a baby and moved on with his life — commenting on the fools gathered around my Facebook page pursuing this project, half in the bag at 5 in the morning: “Oy! Get some sleep, you BUNCH OF CUNTS!” (Don’t worry. He’s Australian. They’re allowed to say that word.)
If you’d like to further participate in this project, send your submissions in the comment section below.