Did you know that both mammal and matter derive from baby talk? Have you noticed how wince makes you wince? Ever wonder why so many h-words have to do with breath?Roy Blount Jr. certainly has, and after forty years of making a living using words in every medium, print or electronic, except greeting cards, he still can’t get over his ABCs. In Alphabet Juice, he celebrates the electricity, the juju, the sonic and kinetic energies, of letters and their combinations. Blount does not prescribe proper English. The franchise he claims is “over the counter.”Three and a half centuries ago, Thomas Blount produced Blount’s Glossographia, the first dictionary to explore derivations of English words. This Blount’s Glossographia takes that pursuit to other levels, from Proto-Indo-European roots to your epiglottis. It rejects the standard linguistic notion that the connection between words and their meanings is “arbitrary.” Even the word arbitrary is shown to be no more arbitrary, at its root, than go-to guy or crackerjack. From sources as venerable as the OED (in which Blount finds an inconsistency, at whisk) and as fresh as Urbandictionary.com (to which Blount has contributed the number-one definition of “alligator arm”), and especially from the author’s own wide-ranging experience, Alphabet Juice derives an organic take on language that is unlike, and more fun than, any other.
“[Blount’s] twenty previous books have been loping reportage and rambling memoirs and occasional doggerel, treating sports, dogs and cats, and above all the culture of the American South, but his latest, Alphabet Juice, may be his best and most heartfelt. Which is odd, because it’s in alphabetical order. Nonetheless it is most suitable for reading, not for reference . . . In the tradition of the first English dictionaries, it has a very long 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—and this suggests the nature of the contents: some definition, some etymology, admonitions, jokes, (see fart jokes), yarns, name-dropping, some long-remembered peeves, and some fresh comedy culled from cyberspace. Alphabet Juice is a hodgepodge, in other words. Blount has emptied his notebook. He mixes traditionalism with futurism and veers from schoolmasterly to slapstick. It makes for a perfect wordbook for our peculiar times, when the language is running so gloriously amok . . . Right now the language has few keener listeners than Blount.”—James Gleick, The New York Review of Books“A self-diagnosed hyperlexic almost 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 . . . 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) . . . 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. To that pantheon I add Alphabet Juice for its erudition, its grand fun and its contrary view on what constitutes good writing . . . 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, 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.”—Jack Shafer, The New York Times Book Review"When I asked Roy Blount Jr. whether his sly humor and wordplay came naturally to him as a Southerner, he accused me of an ad hominy. Nothing so easily won! he said. Words come one at a time. 'It's a sensuous connection. All English should be body English.' His books are invariably smart—his new Alphabet Juice, delightfully literary—but there's always a loon-on-the-run- through-the-fun-house quality in them. As if Mark Twain had tossed back a whole jar of moonshine. At least that's what his fellow Southerners say. With Blount, one thought leads to the next and, before you know it, there's a dizzy chain of free association. But don't let that fool you. There's also a deep strategy at work. You'll find it in the accompanying essay. Amusing as it is, it teaches you how to write . . . In 67 years, he has been a performer, poet, teacher, editorial writer and the author of 20 books. Among those works: About Three Bricks Shy of a Load: (1974), Camels Are Easy, Comedy's Hard (1991) and a biography of Robert E. Lee (2003). His next, based on the movie, is titled Duck Soup. Although he lives in New England now, no one will take him for anything but a Southerner. Words for him are riffs, jazz, fugues. 'A Southerner talks music,' Twain once said. And so it is with this writer, at once ebullient, freewheeling and wise."—Marie Arana, The Washington Post Book World"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 . . . 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 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 . . . 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 befor
Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty previous books, covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking. He is a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! and is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. Born in Indianapolis and raised in Decatur, Georgia, Blount now lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, the painter Joan Griswold.
Roy Blount Jr. and Kurt Andersen create definitions for made-up words and challenge listeners to create their own neologisms.
From Macmillan Audio
Roy Blount Jr. in the studio recording the audio version of Alphabet Juice. Here he meditates on how “oink” was chosen to describe the noise a pig makes.
Blount's Nov. 10 reading at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.