Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

A Taste of "Alphabet Juice"

Last week we interviewed the irrepressible Roy Blount, Jr. about his latest book, Alphabet Juice, an A-to-Z compendium of his musings on the glory of the English language. In this excerpt from the book's opening chapter, Blount considers the scholarly theory of the arbitrary relation between words and meanings, to which he firmly responds: "Arbitrary, schmarbitrary."

According to scholars of linguistics, the relation between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. In proof, they point to pigs. Steven Pinker, in Words and Rules, observes that pigs go oink oink in English, nøff nøff in Norwegian, and in Russian chrjo chrjo. That may look arbitrary. As if it went something like this:

English committee member #1
What'll we put down for pig noise?

Member #2
(whose motives are unclear)
Let's name it for my uncle Oink.

Member #3
No, we need to capture more of that grunh, grunh ...

Weary groan arises.

Member #4
In Russia . . .

He or she is shouted down.

Committee chairman
People. We have to move on.

Have you ever tried to spell any of the various sounds that pigs make? It isn't easy. It's damn well worth trying, but eventually you have to settle on something close. (Chickens being more articulate, you'll find their noises to be pretty similar the world round. Baby chicks go peep peep in English, pío pío in Spanish, piyo piyo in Japanese.)

And I'm not sure Pinker is playing fair with that chrjo. It's not Russian letters. How am I supposed to know how Russian people or pigs pronounce it? Fortunately, by Googling "Russian pigs go," I have obtained the input of an online chatperson (at ask.metafilter.com) named "MrAnonymous," who sounds like he knows what he is talking about:

In Russian, pigs go hroo, hroo. Note that these are rolled r's and the h is more of a hk sound, like when you try to build a loogie. (Don't try and pronounce the K, just flem up the H.)

That, although it should be "try to pronounce" and phlegm, is not bad. Over the years and around the world, generation building upon generation, people have put much mimetic effort into the spelling of pig utterance.

For that matter, grunt works for me, and I resent any insinuation that I have been programmed by random convention. Dictionaries in their grudging way call grunt "probably imitative." The word is a distinct refinement, or counterrefinement, of the Old English grunettan, and although the parallel Greek gry, in comparison, looks less than fully swinish, you can see the resemblance. The French for "to grunt" is grogner. You know what the French for the growl of a car is? Vroum!

That car is running on alphabet juice. So, less obviously, are spice and tang and strength (do you think that word fits its meaning no better than would, say, delicacy?) and, excuse me, sphincter, which shares a root, incidentally, with the Sphinx.

Marshall McLuhan, whom we celebrate for coming up with such memes as "the global village" and "the medium is the message," played fast and loose with the roots of words, according to his biographer, Philip Marchand: he "pored over etymologies in the OED as if they were mystic runes," and irritated colleagues at Cambridge by making up fanciful derivations to support his theories. I prefer a firmer grip on etymology—"the wheel-ruts of modern English," as etymonline.com puts it.

So I am not going to think of the mysterious statue and say sph- is soft (face of a woman, and we may think of sphagnum moss), the middle part is retentive-sounding, and the x is for unknown. I am going to consult several reliable lexicographical sources, and report to you that the original Sphinx, the monster whose riddle Oedipus solved, was named by the Greeks from their verb sphingein, to squeeze, because she strangled her victims. Pronouncing sphincter, or squeeze, constricts the throat.

Oddly enough, McLuhan did his Ph.D. dissertation on Thomas Nashe, who described a comely maid as "fat and plum every part of her as a plover, a skin as slick and soft as the back of a swan, it doth me good when I remember her. Like a birde she tript on the ground, and bare out her belly as majestical as an Estrich." (In one or two places I have slightly modernized Nashe's Elizabethan spelling, but I wouldn't touch Estrich. Another old version of ostrich was Austridge. The roots go back, via the Latin avis struthio, to the Greek strouthokamelos, camel-sparrow.)

I say "oddly enough" because McLuhan, according to Marchand, "was never interested in the 'music of words.'" In Understanding Media, McLuhan maintained that the phonetic alphabet—"in which semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds"—had alienated people from the body. The ink had hardly dried on that notion when the Free Speech Movement broke out at Berkeley, and pretty soon people were running naked and letting their hair grow wild.

Maybe many of them were trying to break away from the alphabet, but I wasn't. To me, letters have always been a robust medium of sublimation. I don't remember what I was like before I learned my ABC's, but for as long as I can remember I have made them with my fingers and felt them in my bones. Where are we, at the moment? We're in the midst of a bunch of letters, and if you're like me, you feel like a pig in mud.

What a great word mud is. And muddle, and muffle, and mumble . . .

You know the expression "Mum's the word." The word mum is a representation of lips pressed together. Since it's not merely a sound, mmmm, but a word, to say it we have to move our lips. For the separator we choose that utterly unintellectual (though it's what we say when trying to think) vowel sound uh, which thrusts at the heart of push and shove and grunt and love.

The great majority of languages start the word for "mother" with an m sound. The word mammal comes from the mammary gland. Which comes from baby talk: mama. To sound like a grownup, we refine mama into mother; the Romans made it mater, from which: matter. And matrix. Our word for the kind of animal we are, and our word for the stuff that everything is made of, and our word for a big cult movie all derive from baby talk.

What are we saying when we say mmmm? We are saying yummy. In the pronunciation of which we move our lips the way nursing babies move theirs. The fact that we can spell something that fundamental, and connect it however tenuously to mellifluous and manna and milk and me (see M), strikes me as marvelous. You know the expression "a magic spell"—

Here the scholar cries, Aha! (See H.)

And the scholar has a point. I'm not here to play tricks (see abracadabra), but to find traction. I am saying arbitrary, schmarbitrary.

Linguisticians will concede me onomatopoeia: snap, crackle, pop, and so on. But they marginalize these words by throwing up the inconstancy of pig sounds, and then they get on with their theories. Steven Pinker does allow that some people might channel their magical thinking into "sound symbolism (words such as sneer, cantankerous, and mellifluous that naturally call to mind the things they mean)."

As it happens, scrutiny of the term symbolic in that sense has led me to find a discrepancy in the greatest lexicographical work in English, the Oxford English Dictionary, but I won't dwell on that (see wh-). I will say that theorizing stands and falls on its examples. Here is Pinker:

Sound symbolism, for its part, was no friend of the American woman in the throes of labor who overheard what struck her as the most beautiful word in the English language and named her newborn daughter Meconium, the medical word for fetal excrement.

This has the ring of an urban legend, a tendentious one, like Ronald Reagan's mink-coated woman stepping from a limousine to claim her welfare check. If there was a woman who gave her baby girl such a name, she had a highly idiosyncratic ear. (Of the thousand most common female names according to the 1990 census, Miriam was the only one ending in m, and it was 285th.) Salmonella, maybe, or Campho-Phenique, but Meconium? No. This mother—I will stop short of saying that linguisticians conjured her up, consciously or unconsciously, to reinforce their denial of so much evidence of the senses, but I will say that this mother is not, in this respect, a good example.

The Japanese, I am told, have two different words for two different kinds of imitative language: giseigo, mimic-voice-language, for instance potsu-potsu, rainfall of medium force; and gitiago, mimic-condition language, for instance pittari, to fit exactly. Neither of those examples may seem intuitive to English speakers, but every language has its deep aesthetic network of sonic correspondences. The very consistency of English is inconsistent—don't expect remember to be the opposite of dismember, or pitch, because its vowel sound is like the first one in sphincter, to betoken a withered peach. But all language, at some level, is body language. (Or anyway, all English is body English. See the quote from Allen Tate at spin.) Who wants a tongue to be cut-and-dried?

It beats me why any writer would want to minimize the connection between high-fiber words (squelch, for instance, or wobble or sniffle [see -le], or the flinch and wince family, or the -udge's, or prestidigitation) and the bodily maneuvers from which they emanate and those they evoke. But I don't claim to be a scientist. Science naturally abhors what it can't universalize. For many years, the dominant theory in the science of linguistics has been Noam Chomsky's, that all human language is made possible by a universal, recursive (that is to say, allowing of insertions such as this one) grammar, hardwired in our genes.

Now hardwired, objectively, refers to metal drawn out into threads. (Hard has a harder sound than soft, and what a fine word wire is: thin—wiry—and sonically drawn out, like its French counterpart, fil. The German Draht is more broadly evocative of the drawing out.) But okay, chromosomes are threads. (And what a kinesthetic word thread is. It's one of several palpably transmissive thr- words: through, thorough, thrill, throat, throw, thrum, and throb.) Chromosomes are not exactly laid end to end, as I understand them, but never mind, mental activity is demonstrably electric (see electricity/chewing tobacco). But what travels through the wires? What force through the green fuse?

Alphabet juice. The quirky but venerable squiggles which through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth.

If you handle them right. The fact that I have made a living for forty years selling combinations of letters on the open market, in every medium, print or electronic, except greeting cards, does not entitle me to tell you how to write or talk. I do hope you realize that every time you use disinterested to mean uninterested, an angel dies, and every time you write very unique, or "We will hire whomever is more qualified," thousands of literate people lose yet another little smidgen of hope. And please promise me you will never lose your grip on the subjunctive to the extent that someone did in this sentence from USA Today: "If Ramirez stayed in Cleveland, the Indians may not be seven victories shy of their first World Series title since 1948."

"If Ramirez had stayed," I cry aloud. "The Indians might not be! Damn! Damn! Damn!"

I hope this book will be useful to anyone who wants to write better, including me. I have written some of the clumsiest, most clogged-yet-vagrant, hobbledehoyish, hitch-slipping sentences ever conceived by the human mind. On the radio I can sometimes talk spontaneously to tolerable effect, with the help of voice tone and adrenaline; but almost nothing that pops into my head flows when I set it down in letters. (That's about the ninth time I have written that unremarkable sentence, a simple statement of fact, and even now I'm not sure that there is anything to be said for the kind of semi-sprung rhythm that has arisen in "head flows.") Fortunately, I enjoy fooling with letters, moving them around, going back over them, over and over, screaming . . . The terrible thing about writing is also the great thing about it: you can keep on changing it. "We say that we perfect diction," wrote Wallace Stevens. "We simply grow tired." (See simply.) But it's a good tired. That's an interesting expression: a good tired. Do we adapt any other past participle to such purpose? I'm stumped. But it's a good stumped.

The franchise I claim is not prescriptive, but over the counter. Quality over the counter. People who mistreat English, or who, with no doubt the purest intentions, discount Sprachgefühl (see kinesthesia), are messing with the stuff I trade in. If the ABC's lose their savor, I will be hard-pressed to pass along, not to mention get paid for passing along, such an intimate pleasure as I felt while listening to NPR's Fresh Air not long ago. The country singer Don Walser, now deceased, was being interviewed by Terry Gross. She asked him about his yodeling.

He said he did two different yodels, a cowboy yodel and a swish yodel.

A what? Walser was a big hearty Texan who didn't seem like the sort of performer who would get off on mocking sissy airs. Anyway, yodeling very nearly transcends gender. Even if you wanted to, how would you make a yodel sound nelly?

Then I realized: "Swiss yodel." When the soft s and the y-as-in-yummy glide together they make the sound that for some reason we spell sh-:

Oh how I wish you
Would wish I would kiss you.

I would be the last person to argue that the sounds of our letters are thoroughly explicable. (Did you know that Hells Angels refer to themselves as "AJ" because it sounds so much like "HA"?) They are a wonder on the tongue. And a tongue—although Robert Benchley called it "that awful-looking thing right back of your teeth"—is what a language is.

No doubt it would be superficial to liken the universal grammar theory to a virtual program wherein all the steps of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire are reduced to a flow chart, with no attention to Fred's ears or the ineffable things Ginger does with her shoulders. But I get no kick from genetics. For depth I prefer digging back to eldritch-grungy roots, Proto-Indo-European (PIE) or Semitic: wegh-, to go; reub-, to snatch; hsp, to be insolent.

In this I am motivated by a distant ancestor. In 1656, Thomas Blount produced the first English dictionary to go into the origins of words: Glossographia, or, a dictionary interpreting all such hard words, of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue. In the New York Public Library I have turned the actual uncrumbling seventeenth-century pages of the fifth edition of Blount's Glossographia:

Coffa or Cauphe, a kind of drink among the Turks and Persians (and of late introduced among us) which is black, thick and bitter, destrained from berries of that nature, and name, thought good and very wholesom: they say it expels melancholy, purges choler . . .

Alphabet Juice is my glossographia. Juice as in au jus, juju, power, liquor, electricity. (Loose words and clauses left lying around are like loose live wires—they'll short-circuit, burn out, disempower your lights.) As in influence; as in squeezin's; as in, the other day I saw a woman walking down the street wearing some highly low-cut shorts. On her hourglass figure, the top of those shorts was at about, I would say (not a snap judgment), twenty minutes. Just below that part of the back where some people—she, for instance—have dimples was where her waistband cut across; and just below the waistband, in two-inch letters, was an inspired, if vulgar, brand name: Juicy. (See zaftig.)

Excerpted from Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount, Jr. Copyright © 2008 by Roy Blount, Jr. Published in October 2008 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty-one books, covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking. The most recent, Alphabet Juice (Farrar, Straus), is out in hardback and audiobook form. He is a regular panelist on NPR's "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!" and is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. To learn more about his work, please visit his website.


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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 17th 2009, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Dorothy G. (Canada)
Calm, cool, and copacetic!
Tuesday February 17th 2009, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Douglas B. (Park Forest, IL)
I'm buying it immediately
Saturday March 7th 2009, 10:21 PM
Comment by: ANDRE O. (LISMORE HEIGHTS Australia)
Language and animal noises! Interesting. The rooster goes cocorico in French,kikiriki in German,cock-a-doodle-do in English and coki coco in Japanese. The only common sound in the initial syllable.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 1:18 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Weird! Totally weird!
Saturday April 4th 2009, 6:30 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Cool and copacetic! You should be more specific though.

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Blount tells us how he's been preparing for "Alphabet Juice" his entire life.
Blount spoke about his new book in New York, and VT subscribers got free complimentary admission.
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