Farrar Straus Giroux. 364 pp. $25
The Joy of English
Roy Blount Jr. has returned from the fields where the American lingo grows wild to write Alphabet Juice, his personal lexicon, usage manual, writers’ guidebook, etymological investigation and literary junk drawer. This alphabetically arranged book reads like a big bag of salty snacks: nibble five or six of its 500-plus entries and you’ll have to wolf the whole thing.
Who before Blount thought to construct a complete conversation using only English vowels? Give a listen:
“I. . . . ”
Who before Blount admired “it” as “the skinniest of all two-letter words”? Who thought to bust Buckminster Fuller for writing, “I seem to be a verb”? Because “verb” is a noun, Blount points out, Fuller was really saying, “I seem to be a noun,” when he made his famous declaration.
A self-diagnosed hyperlexic since first grade, Blount hangs out in dictionaries the way other writers hang out in bars. It’s easy to picture him making a pub crawl of the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged), the Random House unabridged dictionary and especially the American Heritage Dictionary, where he helps tend bar as a member of its official usage panel. Both giddy and sober, as if ripped on Old Crow fortified with Adderall, Blount chases letters, words and phrases to their origins, and when stumped he hypothesizes.
Take “quirky,” for example. Origin unknown, but Blount speculates that “quirk” was born following “the union of ‘quick’ and something more pejorative, perhaps ‘jerk.’ ” Why, he asks, do so many reduplicative expressions or near-reduplicative expressions start with “h” (“hillbilly,” “hippy-dippy,” “handy-dandy,” “hanky-panky,” “hocus-pocus,” “hoity-toity,” “hoodoo,” “hotsy-totsy,” “hully gully,” “humdrum,” “hurdy-gurdy”), beating out the runner-up, “w”? His answer:
“You will note that many of those ‘h’ expressions refer to disorder and jumblement. Most are of unknown origin. (No matter what you may have learned at your mother’s knee, ‘hunky-dory’ probably does not come from a street in Yokohama where sailors could find a bit of all right.) They’re the sort of expressions that people pull out of the air to convey something otherwise indefinable, like ‘whatchamajig.’ ”
From there he redirects his inquiry to the entry for the letter “h” — which does not contain the “h” sound, having “lost one of its aitches when it came into English from the French hache” — and wonders if the ease of forming the “h” sound with just a breath explains its ubiquity.
There’s no aspect of our language, written, spoken or grunted, that escapes Blount appraisal. Like that other lay linguist H. L. Mencken, who beat the pros at their own game with “The American Language,” he figures that if amateurs are qualified to create language and authorized to mutate it, why leave the fun of tasting, dissecting and quarreling over it to the professoriate?
Marginalized as a humorist (like Mencken) because he knows how to write funny, Blount is also a superb reporter who possesses an imaginative intellect (also like Mencken). Disdaining those scholars who think the relation between words and their meanings is arbitrary, he argues that “all language, at some level, is body language.” Beyond the clearly imitative words, like the onomatopoeic “boom,” “poof” and “gong,” Blount zeroes in on the expressive words that “somehow sensuously evoke the essence of the word: ‘queasy’ or ‘rickety’ or ‘zest’ or ‘sluggish’ or ‘vim,’ ”he writes. “If you were a cave person earnestly trying to communicate how you felt digestively, you might without benefit of any verbal tradition come up with something close to ‘nausea.’ ”
Blount has coined a term to describe words like these that are “kinesthetically evocative of, or appropriate to, their meaning”: it’s “sonicky,” and it appears so frequently in Alphabet Juice that it deserves billing in the subtitle. Other sonicky words Blount traps and releases: “lick,” “heebie-jeebies,” “ka-ching,” “chunky,” “blink,” “squeeze,” “foist,” “weird,” “wonky,” “finicky” and “wobbly.” “ ‘Sphincter’ is tight; ‘goulash’ is lusciously hodgepodgy,” he writes. “ ‘Swoon’ emerged from the Old English swogan, to suffocate, because the mind and the mouth conspired to replace ‘og’ with ‘oo’ in order to register a different motion-feeling.” To Blount’s sonicky list, allow me to add “snot.”
The mind-mouth conspiracy to which Blount refers leads him to meditate on the pleasure of saying “polyurethane foam.” The surplus of vowels, the “fluidity” of its meter and “the conjunction of that ‘y’ pronounced like a long ‘e’ and that ‘ur’ like ‘yoor’ ” get primary credit for bliss. Feeling “ ‘polyurethane foam’ . . . running around in my mind’s ear and mouth is like watching otters play in the water,” he says. The scientist in him holds and measures words; the poet tickles them and begs to be tickled back. At one moment he has you beholding the most exquisitely balanced word in English (“level”), and at another he’s schooling you in the frequency with which “t” evokes disapproval, as in “tut-tut,” “too-too,” “tittle-tattle,” “tacky tacky tacky,” “fat,” “rat,” “catty,” “tatty,” “twit” and “all hat and no cattle.”
Like many writers, I keep a few books on a shelf to unclog my brain for those times when the right combination of words refuses to muster for service (currently in rotation are “Blood Meridian,” “Beneath the Underdog,” “Mumbo Jumbo” and “1001 Afternoons in Chicago”). To that pantheon I add Alphabet Juice for its erudition, its grand fun and its contrary view on what constitutes good writing. Real writers are supposed to “murder their darlings” — that is, purge any vivid phrase that calls excessive attention to the author. This advice has been variously attributed to Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Orwell, Auden and others, but Blount traces it to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1916 book, “On the Art of Writing.” “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — wholeheartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press: Murder your darlings,” Quiller-Couch wrote.
As one who labored for 15 years as an editor urging writers to birth their darlings and nurture them so that we would have something interesting to publish, I cheered after reading Blount’s critique of this maxim. What is “murder your darlings” but a giant, throbbing, attention-grabbing darling itself? Quiller-Couch could have written “kill your pets” or “eliminate your sweeties” if he was so keen on scrubbing his copy of brilliant phrases, Blount writes, demolishing the famous directive by quoting passages in its vicinity. They swarm with darlings!
Not that Blount counsels self-indulgence. Writing “needs to be quick, so it’s readable at first glance and also worth lingering over.” This book is both, and danced in Blount’s arms, English swings smartly. My admiration for Alphabet Juice only swelled when it proposed a conclusion for this review. Reviewers like to apply the word “uneven” to books they’re fond of, he suggests, but have a few reservations about. “Would you want to read a book that was even?” he asks.
Yes, very much so. And I just did.
Washington Post, Sunday October 12, 2008:
Michael Dirda on 'Alphabet Juice'
Roy Blount's comic, scholarly, idiosyncratic take on the English language.
The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
If your eyes have only skimmed over the long subtitle of Alphabet Juice and just vaguely registered that the book has something to do with words, please go back and read the entire subtitle again, slowly. This time listen to the syncopation of the clauses, as well as the alliterative music of the p's and t's, then note the juxtaposition of high and low style ("combinations thereof," "innards"), the punchy yet unexpected nouns ("gists," "pips"), that touch of genteel sexual innuendo ("secret parts"), and the concluding flourish of the gustatory. Like Roy Blount Jr. himself, his new book's subtitle neatly balances real learning with easy-loping charm.
But then Blount isn't merely the ah-shucks Georgia boy he might sometimes seem; he's a Georgia boy who was a Phi Beta Kappa at Vanderbilt and has an M.A. in English from Harvard. Moreover, for the past 40 or so years he has supported himself by a versatile and distinctly pleasing way with words, having been successively (or even simultaneously) a sports reporter, essayist, cultural commentator, light versifier, occasional actor, novelist, lecturer, oral storyteller and anthologist ( Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor). Though generally slotted as a humorist (in the down-home vein of Will Rogers and Garrison Keillor), Blount is still serious enough to be a longtime usage adviser to the American Heritage Dictionary, a contributing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and a star of National Public Radio's quiz show " Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me." And therein lies a mystery: Given all this energetic freelancing, how does the man somehow manage to sound -- in person and on the page -- as if he spent most of his time lounging on an old davenport, with a cold Abita Amber in his hand, watching football or basketball on TV? The immensely likeable Blount clearly possesses what was called in the Italian Renaissance "sprezzatura," that rare and enviable ability to do even the most difficult things without breaking a sweat.
Take a look at Alphabet Juice. To all appearances, it might be just one more tributary to the never-ending stream of books about language and proper usage. Haven't we already had our loosey-goosey grammar and diction excoriated by H.W. Fowler ( Modern English Usage), Theodore Bernstein ( The Careful Writer) and John Simon ( Paradigms Lost)? Haven't scholars from W.W. Skeat and Eric Partridge to the latest editors of the Oxford English Dictionary unriddled the etymological mysteries behind our most common words? What makes this book by Roy Blount so special?
Well, Blount, of course. You don't so much read Alphabet Juice as listen to it. The book may be printed, paginated and bound, but I'm guessing that some kind of microchip, probably embedded in the spine, funnels Blount's ingratiating, slightly disingenuous voice directly into your brain. A given entry -- "the f-word," "subjunctive," "menu-ese," "pizzazz" -- may start off with a scholarly account of a word or term's origin, with more than a casual glance at its Proto-Indo-European root, but before long Blount will soft-shoe his way into an anecdote, some comic verse, a bit of wordplay. Look up the phrase "honest broker." Here we learn that "the word broker stems from the Spanish alboroque, a ceremonial gift at the resolution of a business deal, which in turn is from the Arabic baraka, divine blessing. Barack Obama's first name comes (by way of his father, same name) from that word." All fascinating no doubt, but the true Blount wallop -- from out of left field -- comes in the next paragraph:
"I am told that today a Wall Streeter no longer uses broker as the verb form, but instead endeavors to broke a security. One reason I'm not rich is that I am broker-phobic. I assume they are always trying to unload dreck on people like me and lining up something underhandedly predetermined for insiders: if it ain't fixed, don't broke it."
The title Alphabet Juice derives from its author's contention that sound and sense are often strikingly related, that certain letters and combinations of letters possess a gut-level electricity, and that "through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body" some words "have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth." A high-fiber word like "grunt" sounds right for what it means. Good diction thus tends to be sonicky, Blount's neologism for that "quality of a word whose sound doesn't imitate a sound, like boom or poof, but does somehow sensuously evoke the essence of the word: queasy or rickety or zest or sluggish or vim." To write well, then, we need to use our tongue and ears, not only our mind and fingers.
For example, Blount makes the case for the word "ain't" by imagining songs called "It Isn't Me, Babe" and "Amn't Misbehavin'." He goes on to say, sensibly, that "anyone attempting to pronounce amn't may attract a crowd of well-wishers admiring his or her pluck, but whatever other words the speaker surrounds it with will be lost." For the most part, though, Blount is no laissez-faire latitudinarian. He bristles at the wide-spread misuse of "hopefully" and our growing tendency to say "I" or "myself" instead of "me." Commenting on the rebarbative acronyms of the Internet (i.e., ROFL -- rolling on the floor with laughter), he writes, with a neat double-entendre: "A medium that requires such terms is not a happy medium." Blount even finds an occasion for brio in his definition of a colon: "an introductory gesture, on the order of 'and now I give you': not quite a ta-daaa."
Like many writers, Blount is drawn to lists. Alphabet Juice includes his half-dozen favorite one-word sentences (including "Fuhgeddaboudit."), followed by some great sentences of two words ("Jesus wept.") and concluding with a few classic three-worders ("Call me Ishmael."). Several pages take up eccentric names in literature and life, noting the heavy-handed handles of Thomas Pynchon's characters -- Alonzo Meatman, Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, the Reverend Lube Carnal -- and speculating about what James Fenimore Cooper was thinking when he decided to call his romantic hero Natty Bumppo. Blount points out that he has known people named LaMerle Tingle, Snake Grace and Love Beavers, and that "among many reasons New Orleans should not die is that the spokesman for the New Orleans Housing Authority, as of June 2006, was Adonis Exposé."
While Blount loves the New York Times, the South and lively English, he loathes George Bush and notes that our president was the only man ever to leave New Orleans three hours before he had to. Sly digs at Bush and his disastrous policies and deceptions recur with welcome frequency throughout Alphabet Juice. For instance, " Pareidolia is 'seeing things.' Seeing, that is, what you want to see in ambiguous patterns or images. The Virgin Mary on a piece of toast (never, you notice, on a bagel), weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
Blount dubs himself a "shade-tree lexicographer," which calls to mind Sunday afternoons tinkering with a dictionary instead of a timing belt or carburetor. Despite some pretty fancy etymologizing, Blount still comes across as a regular guy: "We know from the writings of Thales of Miletus (or more likely, as in my case, from encyclopedias) that the Greeks knew . . ." But when he wants to, he can deliver a quip or judgment as pointed as anything by a 17th-century French aphorist: "Reading from a monitor, instead of a book, is like playing videogame football instead of tossing a football around."
Alphabet Juice, being arranged like a dictionary, is designed for browsing, for flipping through the pages, reading where you will, "without ever being sure you've read it all." Just don't miss the entries about Wilt Chamberlain, the evolution of "D'oh," the naughty but brilliant wordplay of Leonard Bernstein (see "transposition game"), the history of "okay," the last, unlikely words that Lincoln heard before he was shot (see the entry for "socket"), the origin of Goody Two-Shoes, the snappy examples of movie dialogue, the Samuel Goldwynisms ("Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined"), the Willie Nelson story under the entry "appreciate," and the anecdotes, such as the following, used to illustrate "Marriage, impact of word choice upon":
"A woman once told me that she made a point of mispronouncing words in fine restaurants because she knew it drove her husband crazy. 'What's this gunnotchy?' she would ask the waiter, pointing to gnocchi on the menu. Once she even pronounced steak to rhyme with leak. Why? Because years earlier, in a snooty French eatery, her husband had expressed embarrassment over her pronunciation of huîtres, and she was still getting back at him."
Back in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson could define a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge," but he obviously never foresaw the armed and dangerously funny Roy Blount Jr. -- Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
"Roy Blount is one of the most clever (see sly, witty, cunning, nimble) wordsmiths cavorting in the English language, or what remains of it. Alphabet Juice proves once again that he's incapable of writing a flat or unfunny sentence." — Carl Hiassen, author of Nature Girl
"Alphabet Juice is the book Roy Blount was born to write, which considering his prodigious talent, is saying a lot. Did you know that the word LAUGH is linguistically related to chickens and pie? This is the book that any of us who urgently, passionately love words—to read them, roll them over the tongue and learn their life stories while laughing and eating chicken and pie—were lucky enough to be born to read." — Cathleen Schine, author of The New Yorkers
Blount...displays his pleasure in words with his subtitle—"The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; with Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory"—as he dishes up an alphabetical array of "verbal reverberations," weasel words and linguistic acrobatics from "aardvark" to "zoology" ("Pronounced zo-ology. Not zoo-ology. Look at the letters. Count the o's"). Along the way, he compares dictionaries, slings slang, digs for roots, posts ripostes and dotes on anecdotes. The format is nearly identical to Roy Copperud's still valuable but out-of-print A Dictionary of Usage and Style (1964). Blount's book is equally instructive and scholarly, but is also injected with a full dose of word play on steroids. Quotes, quips, euphemisms, rhymes and rhythms, literary references ("Lo-lee-ta") and puns: "The lowest form of wit, it used to be said, but that was before Ann Coulter." Throughout, the usage advice is sage and also fun, since the writer's own wild wit, while bent and Blount, is razor sharp.
Ever since Lynn Truss' Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation took the 2004 best-seller lists by storm, publishers have been casting about for their next dark-horse language book. Farrar may have found it in Blount's latest title. Much more garrulous than Truss, a shameless namedropper, and a purveyor of endless anecdotes always casting himself in the starring role, Blount is supremely entertaining here and more than matches Truss' spirited tone. Laid out in A–Z dictionary format, the book ranges from the pointed critique of conjunction dysfunction to the hilarious diatribe under tump, which finds Blount spending weeks looking for his own name in the new edition of American Heritage Dictionary. Feeling that he is long overdue to be cited for word usage, Blount envies "Hunter Thompson for booger, Jimmy Breslin for boozehound, and William Safire for hoohah." He is, however willing to concede snob to Tom Wolfe. Although some entries are only tangentially connected to his ostensible subject (see TV, on being on), many others provide Blount with ample opportunity to wax eloquent on the joys of language; his perfect parsing of the allure of the phrase "wonky exegeses" will elicit smiles from fellow language lovers. A knowledgeable handbook that is also chock-full of funny, colorful opinions on marriage, movies, and Monet.