kw: book reviews, nonfiction, words, etymology
The book after this one is about collecting. Alphabet Juice is by an inveterate collector of words, Roy Blount Jr. 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, strongly hints at the level of his affliction.
This is not a book to read from cover to cover as one would a novel. Though I am just the sort to read a dictionary right through, this book is one to savor in random bits. It is linked together with bolded words and phrases, which one may take as hyperlinks to their entries. The book's content would make a great website (and perhaps it does, though I haven't found it yet). In his preface, the author presents the linguist's mantra, that "words and their meanings have an arbitrary relationship", as the straw man which he will knock about for the balance of the volume.
Indeed, beginning on page 23, he digs into arbitrary, soon stating, "Let's riffle through the dictionary: shrivel, shove, scribble …[I leave out the next 72 items]… scrounge, prestidigitation—if linguists can't hear any correspondence between sound and sense in those words, they aren't listening." Indeed, many a language would be immeasurably harder to learn if a word like mope bore no relation to the down-in-the-mouth mood it emulates. Try saying "mope" with a smile on your face. Not impossible, but it sure feels funny.
Blount doesn't just etymologize words for us, he frequently digs underneath the floor left by other lexicographers. Weird, which once conveyed fate-altering power, has become a popular synonym for strange; then he notes that it disregards the "i-before-e" rule (I have found that rule less than useful, being helpful only for Latinate-rooted words, and consistently flouted by Germanic words, which make up nearly an equal number. "Weird" is Germanic).
He discourses on the f-word, which along with the s-word was considered much less offensive in Elizabethan times, some four centuries back. It is odd that folks make so much of "4-letter words", when their siblings make up so much of common discourse: fool, snot, jump, dumb, crud, plot, sing…
He sneaks a few people in, such as Blanc, Mel, the voice of a number of favorite cartoon characters. He tells of Mel's curious response when he was in a coma for a few weeks: asked if he was OK, he was silent, but when asked if Bugs Bunny were OK, he responded in Bug's voice. Mel said, "I was dead, but my characters were alive."
While many etymologies are of the more straightforward persuasion, such as larynx, which gets but four lines, Blount clearly prefers to dig deeply. He gives us two full pages on laugh. The origin of the word needs but a few lines, but then he begins, "It is hard to write humorously about people laughing," and he's off in a whirl of literary allusions and quotes, finally disproving the proposition.
Or not. Perhaps the few authors he quotes, when added to Mark Twain, make up the sum of those who've managed the trick. But Blount proves even the more that writing humorously about lexicography—when the greatest of them all titled a lexicographer a "harmless drudge"—is no drudgery indeed but is the playground of great minds.