Alphabet Juice

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The full subtitle of 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 Savorypeculiar, expansive, begging to roll off the tongueis a fitting appetizer for what follows. The author has explained it as a tribute to his ancestor Sir Thomas Blount, who in 1656 published a dictionary with an unusual subtitle. However, it could also be the author poking a bit of fun at academia, where titlesand subtitlestend to twist and turn with studied abandon. It is difficult to be sure with Roy Blount, Jr. He seems to be a down-home Georgia country boy, except that he graduated from Vanderbilt University magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and he earned a master’s degree in English from Harvard University. He is best known as a humorist, compared by many to Garrison Keillor and Will Rogers. However, he has also made his living as a sportswriter, lecturer, novelist, poet, essayist, performer, dramatist, anthologist, and storyteller

Like its author, Alphabet Juice is also hard to classify. Its focus is language, and readers can certainly learn much about usage, grammar, punctuation, and more. In addition, the author’s idiosyncrasies share center stage. For example, in elucidating the subjunctive tense, Blount uses the title of O. J. Simpson’s book If I Did It (2007), explaining that it would be grammatical only if Simpson did not know whether or not he had committed the homicide for which he was acquitted in criminal court but found in civil court to be responsible. Blount says that if Simpson had not done it, he would have titled his booksubjectively“If I Had Done It.” However, if Simpson did do it, he would “certainly not be above going with If I Did It, which is catchier, in a loathsome sort of way.” Blount suggests that “with the rising tides of uncertainty and unthought-out assertiveness in Western civilization today . . . , the subjective often blends with the indicative to create a syntactical can of worms.”

Alphabet Juice comprises its own can of worms, in the best sense, as linguistics cavorts with ingenuity and erudition meets horse sense to create an unconventional reality. Similar to a dictionary, the entries in this book are formatted A to Z, giving readers something familiar to hold on to as Blount twirls his language lovesand occasional pet peeveslike Möbius strips. A few reviewers have noted that Blount’s personal associations may lose his readers in places, yet most critics seem to consider this part of the charm. All the entries will probably not resonate with all readers, and some may even begin to feel slightly exasperated in places. However, Blount seems to be having too much fun to care, and his gleeand originalityare contagious.

As with traditional dictionaries, readers can learn from Alphabet Juice how to pronounce “divisive” correctly and appreciate that “tango” does not derive from the Latin tangere (to touch), but rather from American Spanish, perhaps of Niger-Congo origin. Blount offers word definitions, and many of the terms he includessuch as “chic” and “mnemonic”would also be found elsewhere. Nevertheless, how many examinations of “mnemonic” would begin with a confession that, although the author would prefer to appreciate rather than criticize words, one such as “mnemonic” should be easier to keep in mind? Similarly, not many dictionariesafter tracing the derivation of “chic”would add that none of it had anything to do with the etymology of the chewing gum Chiclets. Blount concludes this entry with the news that Chiclets “comes from chicle” (quoting the American Heritage Dictionary definition: “the coagulated milky juice of the sapodilla, used as the principal ingredient of chewing gum”), which he says in turn comes from the “even chewier Nahuatl word chictli,” and then he announces that chiclets meaning teeth (“in particular knocked-out ones”) derive from physical likeness alone.

Digressions aside, there are other features that make this book distinctive. For example, Blount offers introductory remarks to each letter before...

(The entire section is 1762 words.)

Alphabet Juice Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 22 (August 1, 2008): 2.

The Buffalo News, October 5, 2008, p. F9.

The Columbus Dispatch, November 2, 2008, p. O4E.

Fortune 158, no. 7 (October 13, 2008): 82.

The New York Times, November 16, 2008, p. L9.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 33 (August 18, 2008): 53.

The Seattle Times, October 30, 2008, p. 14.

Sports Illustrated 109, no. 24 (December 15, 2008): 24.

The Washington Post Book World, October 12, 2008, p. BW10.