September 19, 2012

BOOKS: Alphabetter Juice, Roy Blount Jr. (2012)

Alphabetter Juice is Roy Blount, Jr.'s followup to Alphabet Juice, another collection of musings, thoughts, and speculations about the words, sounds, and letters that make up the English language.

One of Blount's recurring themes is his notion that some words are "sonicky," his coinage for words that, while not strictly onomatopoeic, have some aural or kinesthetic link between word and meaning. He often pulls together lists of words that begin or end with similar sounds, noting that even though they aren't all linked etymologically, there is a sort of psychological link among them, and he argues that this link has to do with the sounds involved.

For instance (and I'm assembling these lists from memory, so they may not exactly correspond to Blount's, but these are the types of connections he makes:

  • fly, flit, flutter, float, flake, fluff, flee -- lightness, airiness, wafting
  • glint, glittler, gleam, glow, glad, glory, glisten, gloss, glitz -- brightness, cheer, shininess
  • grump, grouch, grime, gravel, grease, grudge, grit -- pessimism, uncleanliness
These aren't universal rules, of course, and you can find exceptions to each (flop, gloom, grin). It would be interesting to team Blount up with some professional linguists and explore whether such patterns exist in Finnish or Russian or Urdu.

(As I look at those exceptions, it occurs to me that the "op" part of "flop" is just as sonicky as the "fl" part. Drop, stop, glop, topple -- there's a common feeling of weight and things coming to an end, which would make "flop" about as sonicky as a word can get. The "fl" wants to soar, and the "op" brings it crashing to earth.)

Blount also offers interesting tidbits of etymology and usage history, takes the occasional curmudgeonly stand on matters of language (he continues to oppose "hopefully" where "I hope" would be more precise, and hoorah for him, say I), and tells entertaining anecdotes about such things as author tours and salmon fishing.

The book (like its predecessor) is an amiable meander through the fields of language; Blount's attention will wander from "naked as a jaybird" to the redundancy of "tuna fish" to Jay-Z to George M. Cohan in a span of three pages. He's a charming companion and a gifted raconteur, and if his speculations might not hold up to the rigor of academic linguistics, they gave me something interesting to think about.

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