Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review - Alphabet Juice

» Alphabet Juice

The subtitle tells you a lot of what you need to know to evaluate this book:
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
Roy Blount Jr. is a writer of numerous books and articles that cover a large spectrum of topics, and, apparently, all the while he was harboring a love of words. Not just words that he could put together into salable writing, but words as words, and this Alphabet Juice is an exploration of words.

This is a simply wonderful book, organized in the classic way, alphabetically, as Blount takes us through "A" to "Zyzzyva." Yet it is not the typical book of word and phrase origins (as in the books by the Morrises). There are poems, and stories, and strange little fragments of ideas, so it doesn't stand so much as a reference work, but as an excursion by one writer through the language he loves.

There are a couple of things you should know before picking up this book, as it may color your view of it. First of all, Blount is prescriptive, but idiosyncratically so. He laments the loss of certain meanings and connotations as definitions change, but he has no problem with the likes of "ain't." The best summary is his own (in the entry for worthy enough):
It's up to those of us who care about words to hang on to their intrinsics and their connections - connections to the world, and to our minds and fingers. We don't have to contribute to the inflation of words. We have to struggle to keep words from becoming arbitrary.
Second, Blount is a big advocate of what he calls "sonicky," something we learned in school as "onomatopoeic," that is, the idea that the sound of words somehow reflect their meaning. It's self-evident in coinages like "fizz," but most linguists believe it a limited theory.

On the other hand, Blount embraces it wholly, and, after reading Alphabet Juice, you may be convinced yourself. At the very least, you will think more about the sounds of words, and that's enriching no matter what theory of language you prefer.

I haven't given you a real flavor of this book, so I will close with a couple of short examples. If you like these, you'll probably enjoy the book. First, under id:
Odd that this and ID are so different; the latter makes you (and your ego) respectable, the former au contraire.
And, under reservationist:
Can this, at last, be my religion? I'm not an indifferentist or a nothingarian, I'm a reservationist. One who refuses to believe in anything - even the reservations - without reservations. I'm not boasting. I'm not trying to proselytize. I'm not even saying I'm a good one. I'm just saying, that's what I am, perhaps.
This from a story about trying to hire a car to take him to LaGuardia. (And I have a sneaking suspicion that I should have named this blog The Reservationist, perhaps.)

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