Monday, September 14, 2009

Book Review: Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount Jr.

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
If you are a language nerd like me, or simply enjoy learning interesting things about words, speech, and grammar, I think you'd like Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount Jr. If you don't care to read about the quirks of the English language, however, stay far away from this book.

I heard about this book from my friend Amanda, and I was interested in reading it because I am a fan of Roy Blount Jr. as heard on NPR's WWDTM podcast. He is consistently one of my favorite panelists. His speaking style reminds me a little of the late Joseph B. Wirthlin's in that he often doesn't seem to be making a lot of sense - maybe he's even rambling a bit - and then he delivers the punchline (or spiritual message) and it's the cleverest/most insightful thing you've ever heard.

So it was fun for me to read the book and hear Roy Blount Jr.'s voice in my mind. I loved reading it, even though it is just a book with 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. It's basically like going through the dictionary with a witty friend (who happens to be a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary) and picking out the best parts. Here are some of my favorites.

On the recommended pronounciation of artisanal being the annoying "AR-tis-an-al" instead of the more natural "ar-TIS-an-al" (p. 28, and see also Ken Jennings' musings on the same topic):

Try singing this:
Shop ar-TIS-an-al and you'll be glad!
Now try singing this:
Shop AR-tis-an-al and blehhh...

On the word "consonant" being defined succinctly and superbly by a certain dictionary (p. 65):

[Dictionary entry quoted.] Can you imagine how sweaty but proud the lexicographer was when that was done? The punctuation alone must have involved hours of meticulous stitching. "People," that lexicographer's supervisor must have announced over the intercom, "we are knocking off for champagne. Loretta has nailed consonant."

On folksy figures of speech (p. 99, and I think he made these up himself):

I feel like a hog starin' at a wristwatch.

So ugly he looks like a homemade child.

On "headlinese," the quirky language of headlines that must convey maximum meaning while taking up minimum space (p. 131, these are actual headlines):



On the proper use of if vs. whether (p. 148):

But here's something I heard on NPR: "The agreement did not address if detainees or their lawyers would be able to see any classified evidence."

That if sticks out like a sore conjunction. "D**n it," that if cries, "this is not my job."

On neologisms (p. 210):

The only word I can think of that I've coined on purpose is antepenultimatum. I've never had occasion to use it till now. It's when, for instance, you're absorbed in something outdoors, and you hear your mother calling, "For the last time, come in for supper," and you know from the tone of her voice that you really will absolutely have to come in, not this time, and not the next time she calls you, but the time after that.

On the word polyurethane foam (p. 234):

Why do I derive so much pleasure from saying, to myself or out loud, "polyurethane foam"? No one seems to get anything out of hearing me say it. From my perspective, feeling it running around in my mind's ear and mouth is like watching otters play in the water.

On writing poetry, specifically a triolet (p. 331):

Slightly Irregular Triolet Occasioned by an Official Explanation in an Airport of Chicago
"We have to seize your toiletries
If liquids/gels exceed three ounces."
For your sake (your security's),
They have to seize your toiletries.
You didn't weigh your Crest and squeeze...?
There! The keen-eyed sentry pounces.
He has to seize your toiletries
If liquids/gels exceed three ounces.

Reading this book is probably the most fun with words I've ever had, certainly since I worked as a lexicographer editing the dictionary. If that sounds like a good time to you, you should read it. If not, you probably shouldn't.


Suzanne Bubnash said...

Roy Blount Jr. is sometimes a guest on PHC & I always like listening to him.

This language post reminds me that I defaced a federal sign the other day in Mt. St. Helens Nat'l Volcanic Monument (and by this public post may now be arrested by an alert forest ranger). It was at a trailhead where they post various notices on a board, one of which was a 5-line jingle encouraging people to pack out their trash. Rhyming pattern should have been AABBA but was AABBC so the end left the reader deflated. I brainstormed w/ my friends & came up w/ a better word at the end & wrote it above their word--a much improved jingle, I say.

JackJen said...

Your. Mom. Is. Awesome.

Also, I love Roy Blount, Jr. Do you ever hear about the congressman by the same name and get confused? Just sayin'.

He's a favorite WWDTM panelist of mine. If I were to create my dream WWDTM panel, he would DEFINITELY be on it.

Have you read /Brainiac/ by Ken Jennings?

AmandaStretch said...

How fast of a read is it? This definitely sounds like something I would love reading and would be perfect for a book challenge I'm part of this year. Unfortunately, I'm kind of behind, I need books that will read quickly.

Bridget said...

Jen, I read Brainiac a while back and loved it.

Amanda, that's the great thing about this book - it is an easy, casual read. It's one of those books you can have on standby while reading other things, and it's no problem to just pick up where you left off.

Also Jen - who else do you think would be on your panel? I have tried and tried to resist, but Paula Poundstone makes me laugh on a consistent basis. So I think I would have Roy Blount and her. The third member...I don't know.

JackJen said...

My dream panel:

Roy Blount, Jr.
Paula Poundstone
Mo Rocca

Honorable mentions:
Tom Bodett
Paul Provenza (I think he was a great addition)

I resisted Paula for a while (I don't know why), but then I heard her interaction with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. It was HIlarious.

Bridget said...

Mo Rocca, of course!! We have the same dream panel, my friend.

Was that exchange between PP and the judge on WWDTM or do I need to look it up elsewhere?

JackJen said...

Here you go!

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