Thursday, May 07, 2009

Alphabet Juice, the Good Parts Version

I have just finished Roy Blount Jr.'s Alphabet Juice, which I have been reading for approximately my entire life. Or, if you want to be accurate, about six weeks. There's so much wordplay it takes three times as long as normal to get through a page.

Alphabet Juice is about words and language, and RB's opinion of or observations concerning certain individual examples. It's made up of alphabetized entries, which range from mishit (entire entry: "Should be hyphenated, for decency's sake"), to mansuetude (which he thinks should be "put out to pasture"), to names, famous, whose correct pronunciation is so narrowly known that if you use it, you'll seem wrong. The examples in the last category aren't that great, but it reminds to complain about the lack of pronunciations given for the more unusual words. I do not, off the top of my head, know how to pronounce prothonotary. The first example listed in Merriam Webster is pro-THON-uh-tayr-ee, which is not how it sounded in my head.)

Anyway, my experience of reading this book has confirmed my belief that I would be a terrible book reviewer. Although I am a proponent of making notes and writing in margins, I hardly ever do it. While I was reading this book, I made an effort to at least mark the pages that contained some particularly interesting factoid, but I find I do not have the willpower to condense it for you in a way that will be at all helpful to your understanding of what this book is really about. Basically I am just commenting on a few of RB's comments. Good luck!

Page 31: This page is largely about the history of the word avocado. Why did I mark this page? Possibly because this is where RB tells us that See you later, alligator translates in French to À tout à l'heure, voltigeur which means See you later, acrobat. But on the same page it says avocat du diable means, in French, both devil's advocate and devil's avocado, which is equally interesting and may have been why I picked it. I think what we can learn from this is that French is fun, and my memory is bad.

Page 81: "Buck . . . in 'pass the buck,' is short for a buckhorn knife, often used in frontier poker games to mark the dealer." I did not know that, but I have a feeling everyone else did.

Page 104 or Page 105: Again, not totally sure why I marked this. Perhaps because the French for the making of, as in DVD extras, is Le Making Of. I'm starting to wonder whether RB is Le Making This Up.

Page 119: This page describes a hat that has three sides, which has printed on it, one per side: I MAY BE WRONG, or IT IS FIFTY TO ONE BUT YOU ARE, or I'LL CONSIDER OF IT. This comes from a 1765 satire called The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, which I now want to read.

Page 133: I have no idea why I marked this.

Page 145: Here is a problem I have with this book. RB goes into the history of I on this page. I as in the pronoun. He says this: "The Old English for I was ic. Not good for self-esteem. In the Middle English period it evolved to ich, pronounced itch. 'Will you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?' 'Itch will.' Not a good start." No, I'm sorry, but no, that is ridiculous. First of all, according to what I was taught, ic was already pronounced itch in Old English. And second, you can't judge a thousand-year-old word that is no longer used by the standards of modern English. Or at least, you can't do it in front a former Anglo-Saxonist who is incredibly sensitive about this kind of thing.

Page 158: I marked this, I'm sure for a very good reason. Which now escapes me.

Page 187: Marked solely for the, of course, French phrase: Faut pas pousser Mémé dans les orties. Which means, Don't push Grandma into the stinging nettles. Seriously. Don't do that.

Page 195: RB shows his friend some ferns in his yard. His friend, unimpressed, suggests that he plant anemones. Roy does not say, but wishes later that he had said, "With fronds like these, who needs anemones?" *snort*

Page 210: Here RB speaks of a word he coined: antepenultimatum. He says, "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." I like it.

Page 275: Sonicky. Before I get into this, let's go back to page 104 for a moment, because I remember why I marked it now. On 104, RB dismisses the word for foot in eleven languages, opting for the modern English. None work as well, he says, as "foot: f for the sensitive cushioned padfall of ball and heel, oo for the aloofness of the arch, and t for the tip of the toe pushing off." This is an example of a sonicky word: a word with a sound that is evocative of its meaning. Like finicky, which is not onomatopoeic but sounds finicky. Interesting, but I have three complaints. One, foot is not remotely sonicky to my ear/brain. Two, the claim of sonickiness so difficult to substantiate that it seems to me that the word is unable to concretely signify anything, and is therefore not a useful word. Three, I am surprised that a guy who is so sensitive about words is so fond of this one. Not only is it ugly, but its meaning is entirely subjective.

Page 335: Entry on we. "When someone presumes to includes you in a we you don't want to be part of, as in 'We got ourselves into this,' here is something you can say: 'Whaddya mean, we? You got a frog in your pocket?'"

Even though some of this book was utter nonsense and/or wishful thinking, it was all interesting. Sometimes I felt like a Classicist listening to an English professor lecture on the Iliad, but overall I quite liked it. And as anyone who has heard Roy Blount Jr. on NPR will already know, it is probably a fantastic audio book.

P.S. I realize that *snort* is not a valid comment, but much of the time I can't come up with anything more specific.

1 comment:

Ivan said...

you are very smart to mark your pages... I usually get to the end and go "I know there was something on a left hand page toward the middle that I really wanted to tell Simon" and then I spend the better part of a day rereading all the left hand pages looking for it and then give up.

"with fronds like these who needs anemones" **I second the snort an raise you a snicker**