Photo credit: Shane Leonard
I could tell you that I saw a flock of birds, and you would probably have some idea of what I meant. You could imagine the feathers and wings, perhaps even hear their song as they flew past. But the picture would differ to some extent for everyone reading this — how could you know if I had seen robins, or seagulls, or geese? Or, if I wanted you to imagine birds, I could tell you I saw an exaltation of larks, and those would be words to conjure with. They are perfectly, gloriously descriptive. It’s a phrase that gives a sense of lift, of flight, of joy. It calls to mind the beauty and freedom in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s
“The Lark Ascending.” We hear that they are an exaltation, and we know something deeper about the nature of larks.
I love collective nouns. They seem almost magical to me in their expressiveness. They are the tiniest of spells, the briefest of incantations, but magic, nevertheless; they are a way to see more clearly, to see anew. They are words that shift meanings and gain power by association. They are, simply, fun. An exaltation of larks was the first one to fascinate me, but there are others that are equally amazing: A loss of umbrellas. A threatening of courtiers. An axel of figure skaters. A stall of procrastinators. A calendar of saints.
All of the above can be found in James Lipton’s excellent book on collective nouns, An Exaltation of Larks
. I highly recommend it. My own well-thumbed copy tells me that the collective noun for a group of magicians is a misdirection. It is, of course, a wonderful term. It perfectly calls to mind the smoke and mirrors of stagecraft, the don’t-look-hereness of sleight of hand. It conveys the work of magicians' craft, the feint in one place that causes the magic in the other.
I wrote a book about magicians. It needed a title. "Misdirection" was not at all the right word for me to use.
I love collective nouns. They seem almost magical to me in their expressiveness. They are the tiniest of spells, the briefest of incantations, but magic, nevertheless; they are a way to see more clearly, to see anew.
It’s not that I wrote a story devoid of misdirection. An Unkindness of Magicians
takes place in a world that it built on secrets, and sustained by making sure no one looks at them too closely. These secrets matter so much that my magicians call themselves the Unseen World. But the magic in this world isn’t stagecraft or sleight of hand. The magic in this world is real. Misdirection may exist, but it is not the point. The point in this world is magic that gives power, that conveys prestige, that kills when necessary, or simply when convenient.
The right word for my magicians comes from birds.
Perhaps it seems like a strange jump to make, magicians to birds. But there is misdirection among avians as well as among magicians: a dissimulation of birds and a deceit of lapwings. Other terms I could have borrowed — ones that call to mind the world of magic as well as the world I wanted to evoke — were a cast of hawks, a charm of finches, a mutation of thrushes, or possibly even an ostentation of peacocks. I could have used one of my favorite collective nouns if I really wanted to hit the reader over the head with things: a murder of crows. But the one that best fit into this secret, magical, cruel world was an unkindness of ravens.
It’s a glorious phrase, one that Lipton cites back to The Folk Lore of British Birds
(1885), because the ravens were said to push their young from their nest to be “nourished with dew from heaven” until their parents “saw what colour they would be.” This origin is not something I was aware of when titling my book, but it fits very well, at a slantwise angle, with the child-rearing behavior of the magicians in my world. They aren’t, as a collective, very nice people. They are indeed — in this way and many others — unkind.
Titles themselves are a bit like collective nouns. Certainly, they are similar in that titles are also a name for a collection of things — words, characters, ideas — all seen in a new way due to their being gathered together. As a writer, I hope my titles will strike readers in the same way collective nouns strike me — with the spark of rightness, followed by a hint of curiosity. Titles are also a bit like magic — a tiny spell, a sort of summoning. Come here
, they say, listen. Read. I’ve a story for you.
These words are the key to it, and when you finish, you’ll see them anew.
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’s short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, anthologized in best of and annual best of collections, and performed on NPR. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Roses and Rot
. She lives in New Hampshire, and you can find her on Twitter at @KatWithSword. An Unkindness of Magicians
is her most recent book.