Book Review: Alphabet Juice

by Hayden Alfano

Regular and astute readers of these pages will no doubt note that this is the second consecutive post in which I’ve written about a book. I promise not to make a habit of it. But I feel compelled to tell the world about Alphabet Juice, a book about words by former Sports Illustrated scribe Roy Blount Jr.

The need to recommend this text stems in part from the peculiar nature of books about language. Most such books are considered to be too dry to be palatable for a general audience, and appeal only to true logophiles, those of us who compulsively correct grammatical errors, religiously do crossword puzzles, and read the dictionary for fun. The odd thing is that these books don’t need to be especially entertaining for that audience to enjoy them. Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, for example, is a wonderful book that entertainingly muses on punctuation. But it suffers from an odd paradox. A book on commas and semicolons will never be interesting to most people, no matter how hard the author tries to make the art of punctuation fun. Meanwhile, the group who will find the book interesting does not need it to be terribly creative; these peculiar little marks hold a fascination all their own.

Alphabet Juice, in contrast, is the rare book that appeals to both audiences. Writing in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness style that is foreshadowed by its 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”), Blount travels the length of the alphabet from A to Z, handpicking the best that language has to offer, exhaustively researching word roots and musing on usage.

The book’s emphasis on origin will please the wordsmith (the word “hip,” we’re told, comes from “hipi” or hepi,” which means “to open one’s eyes, be aware” in the sub-Saharan African Wolof language). Others will get a kick out of Blount’s "quirky" (he states that the origin of this word is unknown, and speculates that it’s a marriage of “quick” and "jerk”) style and biting humor. (“Realtor,” he says, is pronounced “Real-tur,” not “Ree-luh-tur. Pronouncing it the latter way is like singing off-key on purpose.”) Throughout, the acclaimed writer gives his readers entertaining thoughts on his chosen art (“I have long staunchly agreed with prescriptivists that different from is to be preferred over . . . Hell, I’m just going to say it: Different from is better than different than.”)

But the true genius of this book is the emphasis Blount places on the significance and power of certain letters and combinations of letters. This is the “juice” referred to in the book’s title. Blount’s thesis is that, contrary to what many believe, the relationship between a word and its meaning is not arbitrary. As silly or as insignificant as that may sound, when he observes “I don’t see how other cultures can feel right without g’s in their eggs” by way of establishing the English word’s superiority over its French (“ouef”) and Greek (“ooion”) counterparts, it’s hard to disagree with him.

(Hayden Alfano is also the author of Rhymes With Hondo, a blog about the Boston Celtics, and 19'9", a college basketball blog.)

(The cover of Alphabet Juice is from publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux who use it for promotional purposes.)

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