Skip to main content
Trade Books For Courses Tradebooks for Courses

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

Roy Blount Jr.

Sarah Crichton Books

opens in a new window
opens in a new window Alphabet Juice Download image

ISBN10: 0374532044
ISBN13: 9780374532048

Trade Paperback

384 Pages



Request Desk Copy
Request Exam Copy


Sign up to receive information about new books, author events, and special offers.

Sign up now

Did you know that both mammal and matter derive from baby talk? Have you noticed how wince makes you wince? Ever wonder why so many h-words have to do with breath?

Roy Blount Jr. certainly has, and after forty years of making a living using words in every medium, print or electronic, except greeting cards, he still can't get over his ABCs. In Alphabet Juice, he celebrates the electricity, the juju, the sonic and kinetic energies, of letters and their combinations. Blount does not prescribe proper English. The franchise he claims is "over the counter."

Three and a half centuries ago, Thomas Blount produced Blount's Glossographia, the first dictionary to explore derivations of English words. This Blount's Glossographia takes that pursuit to other levels, from Proto-Indo-European roots to your epiglottis. It rejects the standard linguistic notion that the connection between words and their meanings is "arbitrary." Even the word arbitrary is shown to be no more arbitrary, at its root, than go-to guy or crackerjack. From sources as venerable as the OED (in which Blount finds an inconsistency, at whisk) and as fresh as (to which Blount has contributed the number-one definition of "alligator arm"), and especially from the author's own wide-ranging experience, Alphabet Juice derives an organic take on language that is unlike, and more fun than, any other.


Praise for Alphabet Juice

"[Blount's] twenty previous books have been loping reportage and rambling memoirs and occasional doggerel, treating sports, dogs and cats, and above all the culture of the American South, but his latest, Alphabet Juice, may be his best and most heartfelt. Which is odd, because it's in alphabetical order. Nonetheless it is most suitable for reading, not for reference . . . In the tradition of the first English dictionaries, it has a very long subtitle—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—and this suggests the nature of the contents: some definition, some etymology, admonitions, jokes, (see fart jokes), yarns, name-dropping, some long-remembered peeves, and some fresh comedy culled from cyberspace. Alphabet Juice is a hodgepodge, in other words. Blount has emptied his notebook. He mixes traditionalism with futurism and veers from schoolmasterly to slapstick. It makes for a perfect wordbook for our peculiar times, when the language is running so gloriously amok . . . Right now the language has few keener listeners than Blount."—James Gleick, The New York Review of Books

"A self-diagnosed hyperlexic almost since first grade, Blount hangs out in dictionaries the way other writers hang out in bars. It's easy to picture him making a pub crawl of the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster's Third New International Dictionary (unabridged), the Random House Unabridged Dictionary and especially the American Heritage Dictionary, where he helps tend bar as a member of its official usage panel. Both giddy and sober, as if ripped on Old Crow fortified with Adderall, Blount chases letters, words and phrases to their origins, and when stumped he hypothesizes . . . Marginalized as a humorist (like Mencken) because he knows how to write funny, Blount is also a superb reporter who possesses an imaginative intellect (also like Mencken) . . . Like many writers, I keep a few books on a shelf to unclog my brain for those times when the right combination of words refuses to muster for service. To that pantheon I add Alphabet Juice for its erudition, its grand fun and its contrary view on what constitutes good writing . . . Not that Blount counsels self-indulgence. Writing ‘needs to be quick, so it's readable at first glance and also worth lingering over.' This book is both, and danced in Blount's arms, English swings smartly. My admiration for Alphabet Juice only swelled when it proposed a conclusion for this review. Reviewers like to apply the word ‘uneven' to books they're fond of, but have a few reservations about. ‘Would you want to read a book that was even?' he asks. Yes, very much so. And I just did."—Jack Shafer, The New York Times Book Review

"When I asked Roy Blount Jr. whether his sly humor and wordplay came naturally to him as a Southerner, he accused me of an ad hominy. Nothing so easily won! he said. Words come one at a time. 'It's a sensuous connection. All English should be body English.' His books are invariably smart—his new Alphabet Juice, delightfully literary—but there's always a loon-on-the-run- through-the-fun-house quality in them. As if Mark Twain had tossed back a whole jar of moonshine. At least that's what his fellow Southerners say. With Blount, one thought leads to the next and, before you know it, there's a dizzy chain of free association. But don't let that fool you. There's also a deep strategy at work. You'll find it in the accompanying essay. Amusing as it is, it teaches you how to write . . . In 67 years, he has been a performer, poet, teacher, editorial writer and the author of 20 books. Among those works: About Three Bricks Shy of a Load: (1974), Camels Are Easy, Comedy's Hard (1991) and a biography of Robert E. Lee (2003). His next, based on the movie, is titled Duck Soup. Although he lives in New England now, no one will take him for anything but a Southerner. Words for him are riffs, jazz, fugues. 'A Southerner talks music,' Twain once said. And so it is with this writer, at once ebullient, freewheeling and wise."—Marie Arana, The Washington Post Book World

"If your eyes have only skimmed over the long subtitle of Alphabet Juice and just vaguely registered that the book has something to do with words, please go back and read the entire subtitle again, slowly. This time listen to the syncopation of the clauses, as well as the alliterative music of the p's and t's, then note the juxtaposition of high and low style ('combinations thereof,' 'innards'), the punchy yet unexpected nouns ('gists,' 'pips'), that touch of genteel sexual innuendo ('secret parts'), and the concluding flourish of the gustatory. Like Roy Blount Jr. himself, his new book's subtitle neatly balances real learning with easy-loping charm . . . Take a look at Alphabet Juice. To all appearances, it might be just one more tributary to the never-ending stream of books about language and proper usage . . . Haven't scholars from W.W. Skeat and Eric Partridge to the latest editors of the Oxford English Dictionary unriddled the etymological mysteries behind our most common words? What makes this book by Roy Blount so special? Well, Blount, of course. You don't so much read Alphabet Juice as listen to it. The book may be printed, paginated and bound, but I'm guessing that some kind of microchip, probably embedded in the spine, funnels Blount's ingratiating, slightly disingenuous voice directly into your brain. A given entry—'the f-word,' 'subjunctive,' 'menu-ese,' 'pizzazz'—may start off with a scholarly account of a word or term's origin, with more than a casual glance at its Proto-Indo-European root, but before long Blount will soft-shoe his way into an anecdote, some comic verse, a bit of wordplay. Look up the phrase 'honest broker.' Here we learn that 'the word broker stems from the Spanish alboroque, a ceremonial gift at the resolution of a business deal, which in turn is from the Arabic baraka, divine blessing. Barack Obama's first name comes (by way of his father, same name) from that word.' All fascinating no doubt, but the true Blount wallop—from out of left field—comes in the next paragraph: 'I am told that today a Wall Streeter no longer uses broker as the verb form, but instead endeavors to broke a security. One reason I'm not rich is that I am broker-phobic. I assume they are always trying to unload dreck on people like me and lining up something underhandedly predetermined for insiders: if it ain't fixed, don't broke it.' The title Alphabet Juice derives from its author's contention that sound and sense are often strikingly related, that certain letters and combinations of letters possess a gut-level electricity, and that 'through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body' some words 'have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth.' A high-fiber word like 'grunt' sounds right for what it means. Good diction thus tends to be sonicky, Blount's neologism for that 'quality of a word whose sound doesn't imitate a sound, like boom or poof, but does somehow sensuously evoke the essence of the word: queasy or rickety or zest or sluggish or vim.' To write well, then, we need to use our tongue and ears, not only our mind and fingers . . . While Blount loves the New York Times, the South and lively English, he loathes George Bush and notes that our president was the only man ever to leave New Orleans three hours before he had to. Sly digs at Bush and his disastrous policies and deceptions recur with welcome frequency throughout Alphabet Juice . . . Alphabet Juice, being arranged like a dictionary, is designed for browsing, for flipping through the pages, reading where you will, 'without ever being sure you've read it all.' Just don't miss the entries about Wilt Chamberlain, the evolution of 'D'oh,' the naughty but brilliant wordplay of Leonard Bernstein (see 'transposition game'), the history of 'okay,' the last, unlikely words that Lincoln heard before he was shot (see the entry for 'socket'), the origin of Goody Two-Shoes, the snappy examples of movie dialogue, the Samuel Goldwynisms ('Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined'), the Willie Nelson story under the entry 'appreciate,' and the anecdotes, such as the following, used to illustrate 'Marriage, impact of word choice upon': 'A woman once told me that she made a point of mispronouncing words in fine restaurants because she knew it drove her husband crazy. 'What's this gunnotchy?' she would ask the waiter, pointing to gnocchi on the menu. Once she even pronounced steak to rhyme with leak. Why? Because years earlier, in a snooty French eatery, her husband had expressed embarrassment over her pronunciation of huîtres, and she was still getting back at him.' Back in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson could define a lexicographer as 'a harmless drudge,' but he obviously never foresaw the armed and dangerously funny Roy Blount Jr."—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World

"Roy Blount Jr. is a famous American humorist. But that clipped description is kind of like saying that Paris is simply an inland French city: The outline is accurate as far as it goes, but it leaves out all of the captivating details."The Boston Globe

"Blount, of NPR, the Atlantic Monthly and a whole lot more, loves words. In this quip-filled book he subtitles 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, Blount looks at them from A to Z, giving definitions, histories and related personal anecdotes. We asked him for his recent favorite and least favorite words. Blount's response: ‘Among words that have been catching on lately, I like "granular."" It's about getting down into the grain of the wood or the seed of the plant—the tangible significant details, more or less what used to be known as the nitty gritty. Alphabet Juice is a good example of a granular book. The opposite of granular is abstract, too detached from anything physical, like all those financial instruments that got the economy in trouble. Words that should be given a rest: 'incredible' and 'awesome.'"—Billy Heller, The New York Post

"Roy Blount Jr., to my mind America's subtlest and most gifted funny guy, has always been drunk on words. He loves English—no, he luuurves it—with a zesty passion. This trait is amply proven by his writing and his frequent appearances on National Public Radio's Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me. Furthermore, as a professional word-man and a Southerner who lives in New England, Blount has a finely attuned ear for both the grating misuse and the pithy turn of phrase. So it's no wonder that his new book, Alphabet Juice, finds Blount happily wallowing in words. He celebrates them, reminisces about them, points out odd things about them, and in general relentlessly searches out (excuse me, can't resist) le mot juice. Naturally, the book is organized alphabetically, starting with an anecdote about a Mississippi State football coach (it has to do with getting straight A's) and ending with zyzzyva (a class of weevils). In between we get a lot of yeasty stuff . . . You can open Alphabet Juice to any page and find something offbeat, on the beat, subjective, hilarious, and/or insightful. It's to be consumed, so to speak, with relish."—Adam Woog, The Seattle Times

"Alphabet Juice is an intensely amusing, often hilarious, romp through the English language. Starting with aardvark and meandering on to zyzzyva (a class of weevils and the last word in most standard dictionaries), the book is the ultimate browser's paradise, in which Roy Blount Jr. flits from one lexical flower to the next pollinating it with his own wild, razor-sharp wit and irreverent sensibilities. Mr. Blount brings significant experience to this exercise in wordplay. He has written more than 20 books as well as being a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly, serves as panelist on the NPR quiz show Wait. Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! and is one of a select group of usage consultants to the American Heritage Dictionary. He is actually one of the few of us who gets to give a thumb up or down to proper usage. As he puts it in his introduction 'The fact that I have made a living for forty years selling combinations of letters on the open market, in every medium, print or electronic, except greeting cards, does not entitle me to tell you how to write or talk' . . . British lexicographer Ivor Brown once termed English as 'the El Dorado' for word enthusiasts and collectors and Mr. Blount mines the mother lode. His entry for id: 'Odd that this and ID are so different; the latter makes you (and your ego) respectable, the former au contraire' and for irony, lost on someone 'I wonder how much irony is lost on how many people annually. Perhaps a Bureau of Irony could generate statistics, with an eye toward conservation.' But there is more . . . much more: great stories, rants and snatches of dialog from sports and the movies and a truly fascinating central premise to this book which is that words and letters have their own energy or the juice alluded to the title and which he defines as: 'The quirky but venerable squiggles which through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth.' The most basic energy stems from the letters themselves. The letter N gives things 'a tang, a nip' (without n snoopy would be soupy.) and that the letter P is so much fun at the beginning of a word (pooh, poof, poot, pop, pfft). Q, among other things, when used to begin a name in fiction evokes a character who tends to be 'strikingly peculiar—queer in the old sense—on the surface but to have a deep down redeeming quality' Queequeg, Quasimodo and Quixote attest to his point. As these letters form words, Mr. Blount contends we can see that language is not arbitrary, as is the conventional wisdom in the field of linguistics, but rather stems from sound of many words which 'somehow sensuously evoke[s] the essence of the word.' He even coined a word for the way the sound of a word can evoke its essence: Sonicky. The book is festooned with hundreds of example queasy, rickety, crunch, gallop, squelch, grunt, mum, zest, sluggish, wobble, sniffle, phlegm, stuff and nausea. Mr. Blount: 'If linguisticians can't hear any correspondence between sound and sense in those words, they aren't listening. Even when words aren't coined with sound and sense conjunctively in mind, the words that sound most like what they mean have a survival advantage.' And throughout the book, Mr. Blount marshals plenty of evidence for this thesis although the linguistic academy will certainly sneer and wince. So be it—Mr. Blount understands that for many of us language is recreation and his thesis is ever so recreational. Part etymology, part usage guide and part quirky commentary Alphabet Juice is mostly a dictionary with stories and great quotations; it defies reading front to back for no other reason that Mr. Blount is always directing us to another entry. But even if you just dip into it and even if you don't always agree, odds are when you do put it down it will be with a smile on your face Roy Blount Jr. is a national treasure and Alphabet Juice underscores the point."—Paul Dickson, The Washington Times

"Humorist Roy Blount Jr. is one of America's most prolific authors and a regular panelist on NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. His latest book, Alphabet Juice is a quasi dictionary/glossary of the English language, peppered with literary references, cultural oddities and hilarious musings on why we choose the words we do."—Kate Pickert, Time

"When Roy Blount Jr. left Sports Illustrated in 1975 to become a freelance writer, his former coworkers descended on his office to claim the curious items he left behind, like postcards of gigantic vegetables. One editor was given a stuffed raven Blount brought back after covering a chess match in Iceland. But there was one special thing Blount made sure to take with him: notes for a book he would write 30 years later. Finally, Blount has added to an oeuvre that includes About Three Bricks Shy of a Load with Alphabet Juice. Subtitled 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, it's a celebration of words and sayings ordered like a dictionary, from aa (a Hawaiian word for lava) to Zyzzyva (a type of beetle). Blount picks apart each entry with humor and scholarship and often employs sports as a frame of reference. He agonizes over how to make Oakland A's possessive. ('People should consider what the possessive will be before they give something a name.') The entry baseballese describes phrases such as I take that yard as 'gnomically economical.' He compares Berraisms with Bushisms and Descartes with a post-game interview. The chief pleasure of Alphabet Juice is following Blount's meandering path. One of the finest peripheral tales is about an as-told-to piece Blount wrote for SI with Wilt Chamberlain when the Stilt retired in 1974. Blount visited Chamberlain's home in Bel Air after agreeing that Chamberlain would have the final say on the wording, including the headline, which he insisted refer to him as 'the dominant' force in sports, not one of them. After tense negotiations, with SI's deadline bearing down, Blount—with help from a smooth-talking switchboard operator, who patched through a call to an SI editor—convinced Wilt it wasn't so bad being a dominant force. Just like Blount himself."—J D. Walsh, Sports Illustrated

"Alphabet Juice is pure Roy Blount Jr, amusing, bemusing, and smart as hell. Working alphabetically ('Funky is followed by 'F-word'), he dissects words, phrases, and figures of speech that can make writing better, worse, or shameful. 'The fact that I have made a living for 40 years selling combinations of letters on the open market,' he writes, 'does not entitle me to tell you how to write.' Do it anyway, Blount we could all use it."—Fortune

"I stand firm in the belief that the most obnoxious party conversation of all is the origins of words. There is never a good reason to bust out the Old French 'cover fire' roots of 'curfew.' A close second is the proper use of words and expressions. For the ultimate horror, a combination: a statement on the proper use of an expression, followed by the origin of that expression or the words therein. I, like many people, have been guilty of all these pretensions in the past, but in the last few years, as part of an effort to talk less altogether, I have avoided armchair etymology. Roy Blount, Jr.'s Alphabet Juice ('juice' as in 'juju,' he clarifies) is a delicious, extended meditation on these issues. Read it, love it, but do not repeat its lessons in a social setting. Not to friends because they will tire of your company and 'unfriend' you, or to children either because they will repeat you and pollute the world with precociousness. A dad might tolerate hearing you recite how 'gourmet' evolved from a word meaning 'servant,' but he's the only one. Letter by letter Blount moves through Roman alphabet, reviewing whatever strikes him as interesting or infuriating. In the introduction Blount prescribes Alphabet Juice as a guide for good writing, and for the preservation of the proper uses of our beloved English language. He goes after such annoyances as 'literally' and 'bit much,' and plumbs the etymology of 'lava.'"—Ann Raber, Feminist Review

"Wise and witty wordsmith Blount, the author of twenty-one books, takes a spirited romp through the English language. Blount, who grew up in Decatur, and now lives in Massachusetts, uses the alphabet as a structural framework but rambles far and wide in this unconventional handbook of grammar and usage."—Teresa Weaver, Atlanta magazine

"I love Roy Blount. I think you should, too. He makes you laugh out loud—a lot (every couple of pages in this book). Human laughter comes in all sizes, colors, flavors and states of emotional dress, from outraged (The Daily Show) to infantile (Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) to raunchy and lowdown (Californication). Blount elicits the laughs of generosity and enlightenment; it's the spectacle of a fellow citizen maintaining benevolence while still remaining better and more straightforward than the rest us. (How exactly did our three candidates for Twainhood—Blount, Vonnegut and Keillor—get to be such decent chaps, given the darkness of their inspiration?) His subtitle in this sui generis carnival is this: The Energies, Gists and Spirits of Letters, Words and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory. Which tells you exactly what the book is: a bunch of etymologies, pensees, gags and syntactical principals imparted in alphabetical order by a 'word man.' What is "alphabet juice" one might well ask? 'The quirky but venerable squiggles which through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth.' Look up truth on Page 309, as Blount recommends, and you'll find a wonderful joke I'll wager anything you've never encountered before. That's the way you're going to read this book and Blount knows it, hopping around with happy grasshopper energy from word entry to word entry so that you 'wear it out, thumbing back and forth without ever being sure you've read it all.' Which, says Blount, is the way he wrote it."—Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

"When you think about it, words and their meanings are funny things. When taken out of context and broken down to their root origins, words can become something entirely different. In Alphabet Juice, columnist Roy Blount Jr. of the Oxford American who is a panelist on National Public Radio's Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! attempts to make sense of those seemingly arbitrary connections. Alphabet Juice is what Blount calls a glossographia, 'a dictionary interpreting all such hard words, of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue.' And what exactly is alphabet juice? If handled correctly it's 'the quirky but venerable squiggles which through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth.' Considered a reference book, Alphabet Juice follows the A-Z formatting of a dictionary, but it reads like anything but. Each chapter begins with a character sketch, if you will, of a letter. B 'sort of looks like two lips pressed together waiting for a vowel to give them voice.' And when paired with the letter l in ball, 'b is the bounce, the boost, the bop; the l is the roll.' The d chapter is particularly fun, with Blount finding a connection between Homer Simpson's 'D'oh' and comedians Laurel and Hardy. When he gets to terms, Blount's entries and their corresponding 'definitions' vary in length and depth. 'Snarky,' for example, is defined in four words while 'tump' takes up five pages. Alphabet Juice is interesting, informative and irreverent. Gems like 'mishit' ('Should be hyphenated, for decency's sake'), 'duck' ('Ever wonder which came first, the verb or the bird?') and 'has-been' ('A bee that is over the hill') are sprinkled throughout more straightforward entries like 'brevity' ('The soul of making a point') and 'semicolon' ('It's what was born when a colon and a comma get together'). Rather than reading the pages consecutively, Alphabet Juice is at its best when thumbing back and forth, as the author suggests. Bolded words send readers to new entries, making what may seem like at first glance a random list of words a cohesive and enjoyable foray into the American language."—Jessica Harrison, Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)

"The author might prefer a comparison to Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. Blount shares with Bierce and Twain a gift for misdirection, an inclination to pull off the fanciest of tricks right in front of us, all the while decrying fanciness. Alphabet Juice pegs knowledgeable as 'one ugly word.' But Blount is one of our most deeply and broadly knowledgeable writers, and his new book is a personal document, a neo-Platonic manifesto exalting the natural music of language ('Doesn't dog sound like what the English expect from a dog?'). Blount's bull's-eye, which he hits unerringly, is the ecstatic center where talking, writing and singing meet. Blount is a strict grammarian with soft spots. Sometimes he wants us to do the wrong thing for the right reason, calling ain't 'a tangy, useful verb' and leaving out the comma that properly belongs in his name (see above) because 'It's one stroke of fuss that I can spare the world.' Just as often, he celebrates the 'right' thing that aggravates and bewilders and delights us because of its proximity to crazed wrongness, producing as an example this quotation, utterly correct in context: 'Now we say ‘"No!"'"?"'"'" Though Blount assumes the disguise of a classic American crank (it's true that he's very, very worried you won't put the hyphen in 'e-mail'), he likes to tease us with his lofty aspirations (all of which he brilliantly exceeds), flashing a hint of naked sensitivity from under a light drapery of jokes. He points out that Walt Whitman and Cassius Clay were both 'Jr.'s' like himself, and that Whitman wrote 'Song of Myself' and Clay changed his name and shouted, 'I am the greatest.' So why does Alphabet Juice remind me of the anti-fiction of David Markson (This Is Not a Novel, Reader's Block, The Last Novel)? Here's Markson: 'Arnold Bennett died of typhoid fever after drinking Paris tap water. Deliberately drinking it, to prove to someone it was safe.' And here's Blount: 'Thelonious Monk played a new song. Somebody said, "What are we going to call this one?" Monk said, "Let's call this . . . ," and he stopped talking. So it's called "Let's Call This."' (Speaking of music, I have gathered from their bodies of work that neither Blount nor Markson thinks much of Bob Dylan—a coincidence either man would note.) Markson tells us that Moses, Virgil, Maugham and Larkin stuttered. Blount tells us that Mel Blanc, in a three-week coma after a car wreck, would answer questions addressed to Bugs Bunny but not to Mel Blanc. Markson is interested that Chatterton bought his suicide arsenic on credit. Blount finds it telling that the leader of the suicidal Heaven's Gate cult was also a Jr. Blount leaps directly and purposefully from John Milton to Barney Google. Markson makes a jump cut from Madame Blavatsky to Brahms. The difference is, Blount's bursts of illumination are organized alphabetically, while Markson presents his in a seemingly random collage. Blount's Monk anecdote is filed under naming a song. But who's going to grab a reference book and look up naming a song? And if someone does, will he find what he's looking for? I would argue that Blount's alphabetization is a meta commentary on the secretly arbitrary nature of alphabetization (though see his wrathful vim on arbitrary). So Blount has figured out a way to have his fancy cake and eat it, too, with a plastic fork like a regular joe. And guess what? He's sharing the cake, and it's the best cake you ever tasted. He seems slightly hurt that Stephen Colbert gets to appear on the lowly medium of television and 'coin a meme.' It irks him that some of his friends have been quoted in dictionaries while he hasn't, despite being on the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. Yet he claims to have no truck with hoity-toity professor types, defining meta as, 'how shall I say, "at a level of, like, likety-like."'"—Jack Pendarvis, Paste magazine

"If everybody's first English teacher were Roy Blount Jr., we might still be trillions in debt, but we would be so deeply in love with words and their magic that we'd hardly notice."—The Dallas Morning News

"One day when I was four years old and my sister just three, I saw her pick up the biggest book in the house and begin to read aloud. 'Mama, come quick!' I shouted. 'Jeannie's reading the dictionary!' My mother hurried into the living room as my sister pointed to two tiny pictures on a page filled with dense, incomprehensible words and began to recite: 'Once there was a bear who went for a walk in the woods, where he met a bee. "Hello," he said to the bee, "I want some honey."' Mom merely laughed. Much later, when I was able to read well enough to understand exactly how I'd been had that day, I was sorely disappointed. (To be fair, I surely deserved to have my little sister pull one over on me, as this was about the same time I talked her into putting a bean up her nose. But I digress.) For years, I had clung to the notion that the dictionary really did hide stories, if only someone knew how to go about finding them. Turns out, someone does. Luckily for those who care about words, that someone is Roy Blount Jr., who happens to be one of the wittiest writers alive (not to mention a graduate of Vanderbilt). Blount has, at long last, finished the job my sister started, in Alphabet Juice, a book that is part etymology and part social commentary but mostly a dictionary with stories. At least, it's a dictionary in the sense that it is a compendium of words, with some phrases and names thrown in, arranged in alphabetical order. (That's alphabetical as opposed to muomegical, which, Blount cautions, is what we would be stuck with had mu and omega happened to be the first two Greek letters, rather than alpha and beta). The intellectual playfulness of this book is best summed by its subtitle, perhaps one of the longest to be published in English since the 18th century: 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. The 18th century echoes are not entirely accidental, for even though Blount discusses mic and e-mail and words like teh that have evolved from texting accidents, his heart seems to lie more in such entries as phlegm, nitpicking, ornery and cantankerous. The section on the abbreviation Jr., for example, goes to some lengths to explain why Blount never puts a comma in front of his own suffix. It's as if the fussy, fidgety Dr. Johnson (author of a great dictionary) and the urbane, licentious Boswell (author of a great biography) were squeezed into a single person, with the result that their wittiest barroom banter becomes all mixed up in the dictionary. When reading , one never knows whether one is looking up a word or a punch line. 'Reading,' however, may be too strong a word. 'If you read this book the way I would read it and the way I've written it,' Blount writes in his preface, 'you will wear it out, thumbing back and forth, without ever being sure you've read it all.' This sort of thumbing is encouraged because most entries reference others elsewhere in the book . . . The entries are invariably funny, always surprising, and can be consumed in no particular order, with days or weeks or years between readings. They vary from esoteric and scholarly to the chatty and personal. Blount tells one story, for example, under the heading, Wilt: A Tall Tale, about a heated exchange he once mediated, while working as a staff writer for Sports Illustrated, between basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and both an editor and a switchboard operator at the magazine concerning the relative usage and merits of the articles a and the. In 1985, when I was in graduate school, I heard Blount tell a version of this story as a visiting lecturer, and a few years later, while freelancing for SI myself, I happened to meet one of the principals, who confirmed that it occurred more or less in the unlikely manner Blount describes here. Alphabet Juice is, in short, the story the dictionary has always wanted to tell, and reading it is way more fun than putting beans up your nose."—Michael Ray Taylor, Nashville Scene

"'Writers love a good list,' begins Roy Blount Jr.'s entry for lists in his book Alphabet Juice, which both contains many lists and is itself a list. But one needn't read the lists entry to know that 'extraordinary miscellaneity' and 'rhythm' are 'two keys to a good list'—both qualities are evident on nearly every page of Alphabet Juice. For instance, Blount lists his favorite entries for 'hater' (including: '4. NOT someone who hates a hater'), and following that, he lists a few choice examples of the threatened art form headlinese (including: 'City Pledges Strict Enforcement of Law'). In fact, well before I reached the Ls, Blount had won me over with both his abilities as an unimpeachable digresser (that's the miscellaneity part) and by pacing this list of entries such that one can enjoy reading it even in lengthy doses (the rhythm part). For all its meandering, Alphabet Juice does congeal around a specific idea. This idea, represented by the word 'sonicky,' is introduced by a discussion of pig utterances. Ours go, 'oink oink.' In Russia, it's 'chrjo chrjo.' The point of this is to call out 'scholars of linguistics' on their belief that the dissimilarity of pig noises across the globe reveals that 'the relation between a word and its meaning is arbitrary.' Blount disagrees and fires back with ammunition culled from the more discernible sections of the world's barnyards. After he explains that it's damn hard to spell 'any of the various sounds that pigs make,' he spends the rest of the book turning the notion of randomness in language construction into an idea only the most tone-deaf, ivory-tower elitist would claim. After all, are we really to think it random that 'sphincter, or squeeze constricts the throat'? Or is it just a happy accident that a cave person might 'without the benefit of any verbal tradition come up with something close to nausea' to communicate that feeling. Blount emphasizes that 'the music of words' is an essential ingredient in language construction. But given that he provides little more than the one example of scholars' reasoning, I doubt he writes to persuade scholars. No, instead of writing for peer review, Blount is using this argument as a reason to wax away on his favorite 'Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof.' And fortunately for his readers, this is something he clearly takes joy in doing."—Tim Warden, The Austin Chronicle

"What a treasure Roy Blount's Alphabet Juice is. From A to Z he examines each letter, commenting upon its form, its sound and words containing that letter. His subtitle gives an idea of what the reader may expect to find: 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. It also indicates how much fun the book is, for in Blount's playful work there is not a dull letter among the 26 of our alphabet. Look up 'g' for instance, or 'x' or 'z,' even the neutral 'n,' which covers more than 12 pages; they all have charm in this zany but learned lexicon. For 40 years, Blount as made his living writing, and obviously he still enjoys sharing his passion for words and the joy they provide. Playing with words can be a hobby that lasts a lifetime and requires merely a good dictionary, a sense of humor, and, of course, a sense of wonder about the richness and complexity of our English tongue. Thanks to Roy Blount, my mind is decorated with the delight of knowing that 'of' is the second most commonly used word in English and the only one in which the 'f' is pronounced 'v.' For some crazy reason, this makes me happy. A warning: This work is contagious. I woke this morning thinking that the word 'flip' sounds exactly right for an upward movement, while 'flop' is perfect for the contrary. This has nothing to do with onomatopoeia, in which words are imitative. My library contains more than 50 books about language, not including a dozen or so dictionaries in English and more in five or six other languages. When I add Alphabet Juice to the shelves where they nestle together, it will have a place of honor. In the meantime, it will stay on the table next to my favorite chair, within easy reach, waiting to be picked up and savored slowly. Like a good wine or a cup of hot coffee, Alphabet Juice must be sipped, not gulped."—Lynn Eckman, The Roanoke Times

"A book about etymology—the origin and historical uses of words—sounds about as exciting as counting sheep. Not when Roy Blount Jr., tackles the subject. Alphabet Juice is a romp. Best known as a humorist, Blount animates the subject with wit, anecdotes and unpredictable connections. It's hard to imagine another such tome that caroms from theorist Donald Barthelme to blues singer Memphis Minnie. Or, for that matter, the highly personal choice of words and phrases—like, say, 'cush-footed,' or 'hoo-hoos.' Alphabet Juice is so much fun, you might not even notice how scholarly it actually is. Blount—who possesses a master's degree in English from Harvard in addition to a working knowledge of Latin, French and German—has his own theories about language. Not afraid to contradict linguistics guru Noam Chomsky, he makes a case here for the connection between how a word sounds and what it means. A recent telephone call to his home in the Berkshires found the former Georgia boy (Decatur High School, class of ‘59) at his desk. What on earth possessed you—and I mean this in a good way—to write this book? It must have required a tremendous amount of research. I love to thumb through dictionaries. I've got every dictionary in the world. Right now, I've got a stack of four leaning on another stack of four on my desk, along with the Concordance to Shakespeare. I've thought about doing a book like this for a long time. I've been making little notes to myself for 50 years. I have notebooks going back to high school, and files of things I've ripped from magazines. When I decided to write this book, before I pitched it, I sat down and wrote 30,000 words. It just exuded from my skin like sweat. Your book is a literal page-turner. You make references that lead the reader to skip around between entries. It's nonlinear, like my mind, especially as I get older and more distracted. I hate to talk about my mind like it isn't in the room. It's blushing now . . . but it is a magpie kind of mind. It's a cliché to talk about Southerners and their propensity for writing, but I'll ask about it anyway. Do you see a connection? Southerners like a lot of seasoning in their food. Flavor and taste is like inflection and sound. That's why I'm interested in sounds. I like the physical characteristics of words. I don't want to lose the trees for the forest. I like rolling words around in my mouth. I love listening to you on NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. What's the difference between talking and writing? When I worked for Sports Illustrated, I always envied the photographers. They took their pictures and they were done, while I had to go back to my hotel room to write the story. When you're on radio or TV, you say it, and it's over. What's hard about writing is that you can change it and change it. That's what's great about it, too. You can change it and change it until it seems liked it just popped out of your mouth."—Catherine Fox, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"As I know well from having edited articles of his for the Atlantic Monthly, Roy Blount is a funny, funny man and also a fine craftsman of language. Both talents are on display in his lively new book—heck, even in its subtitle."—The Detroit Free Press

"In the beginning was the word. No, make that the letter. That's what the brilliant humorist Roy Blount Jr. (no comma, please, as he makes clear) insists upon in 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. Read this straight through, or open to any random page for a literary delight; choose the letter of your choice. Blount's collection of sounds and words and expressions is bound to tickle your funny, punny bone or make your eardrums tingle with glee. Think about these perfect two-word sentences, found under the letter g, for great two word-sentences, naturally: 'Jesus wept.' 'Nooses give.' 'Go figure.' 'Non serviam.' 'I'm home.' And here's the perfect example of one of Blount's definitions: 'Verbatim.' 'Every writer's answer, in her or his heart, to the question, "How would you like to be remembered?"' Luckily for readers, there's a lot of Blount's work to remember. And happily for book buyers, this is the perfect gift for everyone on your list."—Susan Larson, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

"Humorist Roy Blount Jr.'s latest offering may be the most entertaining book you'll never finish. And that's not a knock. It's a nod to Blount's own counsel. 'If you read this book the way I would read it and the way I've written it,' he suggests in his introduction, 'you will wear it out, thumbing back and forth, without ever being sure you've read it all.' Alphabet Juice is a sort of circular madcap dictionary. Which is to say, a book about words, compiled alphabetically and with great wit, but according to no other apparent program. Thus it begins with a rambling consideration of the word 'a' (and the retelling of a joke about college football players) and ultimately concludes with the word 'zzyzva' (a class of weevils), as well as an invitation to think about the word 'aah,' which is the book's third entry, found way back on Page 12. Many of Blount's entries contain words defined elsewhere. These appear boldfaced, so when you reach, say, the end of that entry for 'a,' you are compelled to flip forward 327 pages to 'Wilt: A Tall Tale,' which recounts Blount's personal experience interviewing basketball great (and apparent egomaniac) Wilt Chamberlain for Sports Illustrated. When one entry doesn't refer you elsewhere, the next one will. Chamberlain's undoing is followed immediately by the entry for 'win' and an invitation to flip backward to the entry for ',' then by 'wonky,' which in turn incorporates Blount's own neologism, 'sonicky,' itself a synonym for onomatopoeia, which is addressed 54 pages earlier. It's easy to get caught up in Blount's madness. The fact that it never ends is a large part of the book's zany charm."—Craig Brandhorst, The Post and Courier (Charleston)

"That subtitle is a hard act to follow; if you don't find it irresistible—if you aren't already saying to yourself, I want this book!—I might as well close up shop right now. Christians are rightly said to be people of the Book. We are also people of the Word, and of words, and here Roy Blount reminds us of our great inheritance. This may well be the Bedside Book of the Year. Set it next to your Bible and your prayer book and an unabridged edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, and you will be set."—Christianity Today

"If you have ever for a moment, for a second, or maybe for a lifetime fallen in love with words, does Roy Blount Jr. have the book for you—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. Roy Blount Jr. has authored over twenty books, but as can be seen by the subtitle of this one, he has outdone even himself this time. In a witty—let's face it damn hilarious—handbook style dictionary of sorts, he offers a wide range of words—many of which many of us may have never heard of—in a concise volume built on the intricacies and hilarities of the history of language. Born in Indiana, raised in Georgia and now calling Massachusetts home, Blount is a regular panelist on NPR's Wait, Wait . . . Don't tell Me!. Within this framework, Blount takes apart language by the parts, and in so doing, offers a wonderful view of the powerful possibility of wording in the wildest of possibilities. From malapropism to uneven, Blount takes the strangest words from the SAT lists and the simplest words from everyday language on a journey of commentary, intrigue and interesting roots. With a section of TV references, with a collection of witticisms any comic would appreciate, and with a heartfelt effort to enjoy the menagerie of language, Blount offers a fascinating view of the words we use, the ones we avoid using and wide variety of those we don't know yet—though you'll probably use some of them just for fun along the way. Engaging and sarcastic at the same time, active and smooth in the same cadence, Blount's commentary is one that shouldn't be missed by any lover of language."—J. Edward Sumerau, Metro Spirit (Augusta)

"A book that's as much fun to read backward as forward, Alphabet Juice is also a one-of-a-kind work of literature that will help you write better. It's like The Elements of Style, only updated and hilarious."—Ian Frazier, author of Lamentations of the Father

"Roy Blount Jr. is one of the most clever [see sly, witty, cunning, nimble] wordsmiths cavorting in the English language, or what remains of it. Alphabet Juice proves once again that he's incapable of writing a flat or unfunny sentence."—Carl Hiaasen, author of Nature Girl

"A few words about Alphabet Juice: Hilarious! Brilliant! Provocative! Okay, one more—Suaviloquent!"—Daniel Klein, co-author of Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

"Alphabet Juice is the book Roy Blount Jr. was born to write, which, considering his prodigious talent, is saying a lot. Did you know that the word laugh is linguistically related to chickens and pie? This is the book that any of us who urgently, passionately love words—love to read them, roll them over the tongue, and learn their life stories—were lucky enough to be born to read."—Cathleen Schine, author of The New Yorkers

"A knowledgeable handbook that is also chock-full of funny, colorful opinions on marriage, movies, and Monet."—Booklist

"Quotes, quips, euphemisms, rhymes and rhythms, literary references (‘Lo-lee-ta') and puns: 'The lowest form of wit, it used to be said, but that was before Ann Coulter.' Throughout, the usage advice is sage and also fun, since the writer's own wild wit, while bent and Blount, is razor sharp."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

According to scholars of linguistics, the relation between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. In proof, they point to pigs. Steven Pinker, in Words and Rules, observes that pigs go oink oink in English, nøff nøff in Norwegian, and in Russian...

About the author

Roy Blount Jr.

Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty previous books, covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking. He is a regular panelist on NPR's Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! and is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. Born in Indianapolis and raised in Decatur, Georgia, Blount now lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, the painter Joan Griswold.

© Joan Griswold