If you think you know English, Alphabetter Juice might make you think again. In this follow-up to his 2008 book, Alphabet Juice, the writer and self-diagnosed hyperlexic Roy Blount Jr. riffs on a language that bounces, plods, jingles, and thuds like no other. It's a celebration of the quirky, idiomatic, cobbled-together words, phrases, and expressions we use every day (and some long forgotten), without giving their provenance, their aesthetics, or their sonicky-ness a second thought.
Sonicky: a term coined by the author to describe words that are not strictly imitative or onomatopoetic, like snap, crackle, and pop, but whose meanings are conveyed by both their sound and their movement.
Enough abstraction—it's not Blount's style. Say the words urge, throttle, and splotch aloud. Note how you form those words, how they contract and expand your throat, tense and relax your tongue, and shape your lips to not only create noises that sound like what they mean, but that actually manifest their meanings in their physical formation.
Doesn't urge simply feel like yearning desire, with its long, drawn-out beginning, strained-R in the middle, and semi-satisfying soft-G finish? Doesn't your tongue throttle when you say throttle? Doesn't splotch, as Blount writes, "explode from the mouth and make an unmissable mess of itself"?
A swift, fascinating read, Alphabetter Juice is not your fifth-grade grammar textbook. It never dwells too long on one thing, nor does it fit a single category. Its alphabetized entries, from A to Z, jump from "bigth" to "blab," from "robinhood" to "rumpsprung," in a mash of straightforward etymologies, linguistic analyses, personal anecdotes, definitions for neologisms, and doses of LOL humor throughout.
Much of that humor sneaks up on you, as in the entry sandwiched between Q-tip and quip—titled, "questions not to ask an author, with answers." One being: Q. "You can work anywhere, right?" A. "Not here, for instance."
A regular panelist on NPR's quiz show Wait, Wait… Don't Tell Me and a usage consultant for the American Heritage Dictionary, Blount comes from a tradition that includes Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and even David Foster Wallace. That is, people who take language seriously, but who aren't always too serious about it.
Like its predecessor, Alphabetter Juice is neither exhaustive nor predictable. The section on Q, for example, consists entirely of the three entries listed above. In G, Blount leads with possible origins of G-string, moves on to gag, and meanders through numerous other G words before he reaches gillie/girl, whose entry, in fact, winds up discussing salmon.
A few entries later, for gollywaddles, Blount recalls Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's claim, in 2008, that the F-word is offensive "because it is associated with sexual or excretory activity… This is why people don't use gollywaddles instead."
"Poppycock," writes Blount. "What gives fuck its force is the combination of its meaning and its kinephonic value… Its rude, explosive soft-f-to-hard-k sound—soft f, uh, as in thrust, and k—and the way in which it surges through the oral apparatus make it a gratifying epithet to utter and often a frightening one to hear."
But Alphabetter Juice is more than a novelty act, a breezy tour of the twisty-turny English language for like-minded word nerds. Joining recent books like Roy Peter Clark's The Glamour of Grammar and Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence, Blount's comes at a critical time in the life of letters. As technology changes both how and what we read, it's also changing what passes for decent writing. See mediablur, p. 148.
In a February 2010 New York Times column, David Carr described the so-called "content farms" that "assemble facts into narratives that deliver information... The results would not be mistaken for literary journalism," he wrote, "but on the Web, pretty good—or even not terrible—is often good enough."
Not for Blount, Clark, or Fish. Those authors, and their books, make a collective case for thinking as you write, for taking care with your craft. As Blount puts it, "I don't even have any patience for not-terrible guacamole. The chunkier the better."
Sometimes a curmudgeon but never dull, Blount knows his audience: people who like to read, who like to think about language, and who probably like to write too. If you can't leave the house or pick up a newspaper without rolling your eyes at nonsensical malapropisms, grammatical quagmires, syntactical knots, or simple misspellings, you'll find a friend in Alphabetter Juice. You'll laugh, scratch your chin, and learn a great deal.
And you'll probably find yourself wondering about all the words, phrases, and expressions that Blount doesn't include. Maybe you'll investigate on your own, hazard your own hypotheses, or just appreciate how little you really know about English. At the very least, you'll anxiously await the next round of juice.
—David Alm, Contributor
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