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Roy Blount, Jr has written “Alphabet Juice: 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.”
Jack Shafer, in a review in the NY Times, says the alphabetically arranged book reads “like a bag of salty snacks: nibble five or six of its 500-plus entries and you’ll have to wolf the whole thing.”
The book is Blount’s personal lexicon, usage manual, writers’ guidebook, etymological investigation and literary junk drawer.
Blount calls himself a lifelong hyperlexic. He hangs out in dictionaries; indeed he is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s official usage panel. He knows how to write funny, and is sometimes marginalized as a humorist. But according to Shafer, he is a superb reporter who possesses an imaginative intellect.
Blount argues that “all language, at some level, is body language.” In addition to words that are clearly imitative, such as “boom,” “poof,” and “gong,” he zeroes in on expressive terms that “somehow sensuously evoke the essence of the word: ‘queasy or ‘rickety’ or ‘zest’ or ‘sluggish’ or ‘vim’.”
And he has coined a term to describe such words: “sonicky.” Here are some others: “lick,” “heebie-jeebies,” “ka-ching,” “chunky,” “blink,” “squeeze,” “foist,” “weird,” “wonky,” “finicky” and “wobbly.”
He writes, “‘Sphincter’ is tight; ‘goulash’ is lusciously hodgepodgy; ‘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 mouth-feeling.”
By page 4 I have already been sent to www.etymonline.com, which calls etymology the “wheel-ruts of modern English” (see more below on “etymology”).
I have learned that pigs go oink oink in English, noeff noeff in Norwegian, but — Blount was informed by a “chatperson at www.ask.metafilter.com ” —
In Russian, pigs go hroo, hroo. Note that these are rolled r ‘s and the h is more of a hk sound, like when you try to build a loogie. (Don’t try and pronounce the K, just flem up the H.) [sic]
In the category “great two-word sentences,” we find
- Jesus wept.
- Nooses give. So you might as well live, continues Dorothy Parker…
- Go figure.
- Non serviam.
- I’m home.
Under “metaphor, mixed:”
Michael Ray Richardson, when he was playing for the New York Knicks, said his team was a “sinking ship.” How far did he think the ship might sink? “The sky’s the limit.”
The book is organized alphabetically. First A with “a,” then “aa,” then “aardvaark,” and “abracadabra,” and so forth.
Under E, a listing on “etymology” says
From the Greek for “the true sense of the word.” That goes back to when roots showed through a lot more than they do today. But just as you appreciate a vegetable more if you know how it grows, you have a better hold on a word if you use it in acknowledgement of its roots, its background, some of the soil still attached.
Under F, he pauses at “foot” and offers Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, Middle Persian, German, French, Dutch, Old Icelandic, Armenian, Gothic and the 1125 CE English forms of the word.
But none of them work as well for him as “foot.” Just pay attention, he says, to “the /f/ for the sensitive cushioned padfall of ball and heel, /oo/ for the aloofness of the arch, and /t/ for the tip of the toe pushing off.”
And then he stops to ponder a metrical foot, so-called “probably because the rhythm of verse derives to some extent from walking. And an enjambed line is one that doesn’t end at the end of a sentence or clause — enjamb from the French for ‘stride over,’ jambe meaning leg.”
By the time we get to G, the list includes “gender,” “glottis,” “Goldwynisms, “good letters, bad letters,” “Goody Two-Shoes” and more.
P: under “ponder” we find “Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the ‘C’ got through the ‘L’ in a Coca-Cola sign.” (Eudora Welty, “The Wide Net.” )
Q includes “Queensberry, the eighth or ninth Marquess or Marquis of” and “quirky;” S provides “subjunctive;” and also “surds” (letter sounds that are voiceless, from Latin surdus, unheard, silent or deaf).
Blount writes in the introductory chapter:
I hope this book will be useful to anyone who wants to write better, including me. I have written some of the clumsiest, most clogged-yet-vagrant, hobbledehoyish, hitch-slipping sentences ever conceived by the human mind. On the radio I can sometimes talk spontaneously to tolerable effect, with the help of voice tone and adrenaline; but almost nothing that pops into my head flows when I set it down in letters… Fortunately, I enjoy fooling with letters, moving them around, going back over them, over and over, screaming… The terrible thing about writing is also the great thing about it: you can keep on changing it.
Blount reminds us that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in his 1916 book “On the Art of Writing,” wrote
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.
To which Blount retorts — what is “murder your darlings” but a giant, throbbing, attention-grabbing darling itself? Sir Q-C could have written “kill your pets” or “eliminate your sweeties” if he was so keen on scrubbing brilliant phrases out of his copy!
But Blount won’t tolerate self-indulgence. He claims writing “needs to be quick, so it’s readable at first glance and also worth lingering over.”
Reviewer Jack Shafer, who writes for Slate, find the book enormously readable and useful, and says his admiration only swelled when he found there a conclusion for his review.
Blount says that reviewers like to apply the word “uneven” to books they’re fond of but have a few reservations about. Would you,” he asks, “want to read a book that was even?”
Writes Shafer: “Yes… and I just did.”
source: article by Jack Shafer in the NY Times on 11/26/08. www.nytimes.com “Alphabet Juice” by Roy Blount Jr is published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (Sarah Chrichton Books). ISBN 13:978-0-374-10369-9 (hardcover). Price is $25.
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