Michael Dirda on 'Alphabet Juice'

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 12, 2008


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

By Roy Blount Jr.

Farrar Straus Giroux. 364 pp. $25

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's email address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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