Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A juicy trip through the alphabet

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, wordplay, words, collections

Roy Blount, Jr. collects words, particularly their origins and associations. Three years ago he published Alphabet Juice, which has a very long subtitle. The title of the current volume is better-behaved: Alphabetter Juice: or, the Joy of Text. And a joy it is. As before, there is no need to read in any particular order. Indeed, throughout, a word or phrase in bold face indicates you ought to go look it up elsewhere in the book. It is a sort of hyperlink.

Each letter's section begins with a discursion—and often a digression—on the letter itself, its sound, other sounds it can contribute to, and so forth. C, for example, starts with the Sesame Street image of a cookie with a big bite taken out, passes via cookie-cutter sharks to "Cookie" as something you might call an attractive woman, then gets into the sound: kooky and cuckoo, but not why one has a "k"; then to cootch and to the similar-sounding, but much different "Coochy-coo". All that just to set the stage for thirteen short items (articles, essays, something else?), including a couple of pages of doggerel about eating crabs and lobsters (under crustaceous).

One of the longer items is gillie, girl and travels through quite a gaggle of related words and word origins. Somehow, he spends quite a bit of it upon fishing for salmon in Iceland, or rather, mostly watching a self-important master fisherman laboring to land a leg-length salmon on rather inadequate tackle.

Throughout, the author will frequently comment on whether a word is sonicky, a word he coined that he intends to carry more meaning than onomatopoeic. For example, knickknack (a great trap for playing SuperGhosts: follow an opening "k" with "k" and see if your opponent knows where to go with it) is echoic, made up of two instances of knack, an old word for snapping the fingers. This is suitably sonicky all by itself, but the author ends by stating, "Knickknacks tend to be clicky little things on the shelf." It just wouldn't be the same if your tchotchkes were called "smoofs". The word really needs all its k's.

And that knickknack-tchotchke synonymy is a large part of what the author is also about. In many languages, a word and its synonyms often carry similar sounds, and not just because "it all started with proto-Indo-European" (PIE). In Japanese, which is definitely not from PIE, the word for cat is neko. The "K" sound is the key here, as befits a small, skittery animal. Though we tend to think of our house cats as warm, soft bricks for keeping our laps occupied, they originated as high-strung mousers with a tendency to run right up a wall, particularly if there were drapes handy to ease the process. (Cat is not covered in this volume, and I don't recall if it appeared in the earlier one. This is just my fancy bouncing off his ways.)

In a closing word, the author hints at a third book that may be on the way, to be titled Alphabest Juice, but what manner of subtitle may be appended, we'll have to wait and see.

No comments: