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Roy Blount, Jr. is Back with "Alphabetter Juice"

In 2009, we had the pleasure of speaking with Roy Blount, Jr. on the occasion of the publication of Alphabet Juice, a compilation of his linguistic musings presented in dictionary style. Now he's back with the sequel, titled, naturally, Alphabetter Juice. Blount's wit is just as sharp in this followup, which he subtitles "The Joy of Text." Here are a few choice excerpts from the letter A.

accentuation

Merritt Moseley, professor and scholar of literature and language at the the University of North Carolina at Asheville, writes me: "When people try to write Southern dialogue, they routinely have people saying anythin'. Or everythin'. Now I'm a Southerner and know a lot of them and I don't think people say that. We say nothin' and somethin' (or sumpthin'), but anything and everything. So . . . is it the trisyllabic thing that makes us give the full ng on some words but not on others? Another funny place to get the anythin' or everythin' pronunciation is with British rockers trying to sing like Mississippi bluesmen, but I don't think anybody says it naturally."

I agree, and I guess the number of syllables is a factor. We can't say Southern speech abhors a dactyl (dum-da-da), because we turn umbrella into one: um-brel-la instead of um-brel-la. (Insurance, though a comparable case, comes out more like two syllables: in-shunce, or even in-shawnce.) I must say, I am always startled when people pronounce alphabet as alph-a-bit. That's how OED pronounces it, but I want some stress on that -bet, and American dictionaries bear me out.

OED puts all the stress on the first syllable of anything, too. At its thickest, a Southern accent may reduce something to sum'm, but it tends to relish an emphatic -ng, as in thang, dang, whang, chicken wang, and weddin' rang. In nothin' there's something to chew on, but anythin' is just a string of little mincy-ninny noises, hardly consonant with folk music, much less the blues.

adverb

Adverbs get a bad rap. To be sure they can be (intentionally or unintentionally) flaccid. In 2006, a group appointed by Congress presented President Bush with a report outlining new approaches to the invasionary quagmire in Iraq. The president's response to the report was that it had "some really very interesting ideas."

But consider the adverb in this passage from a poem by Sarah Lindsay, "An Old Joke," in which she imagines an ancient girl's succumbing to a horrible gut-spilling disease:

They buried the husk of her
in the front room,
tiredly crying.

Not a common word, tiredly, and not euphonious — wearily would be more conventionally poetic. But tiredly is inspired, somehow. I wonder if Lindsay remembered it from the short story "The Best of Everything" by Richard Yates. At the story's beginning, a woman named Grace recalls that after her first date with a man named Ralph, her roommate, Martha, was scornful of him: "Isn't he funny? He says 'terlet.' I didn't know people really said 'terlet.'" Martha prefers men who use "words like 'amusing' all the time."

Well, Martha is a college graduate, lah-di-dah. Now it's the night before Grace will marry Ralph. To give the two of them some privacy for a change, so they can consummate their love a night ahead of time, Martha is graciously spending the night elsewhere. When Grace hopefully presents herself to Ralph in her new negligee, however, Ralph says he has to rejoin the boys, who are throwing him a party. But first, "I'm fulla beer. Mind if I use ya terlet?"

Let's turn our eyes from jerky Ralph and poor Grace for just a moment to ask, what is a sufficiently polite yet straightforward term for the john? Toilet, euphemistic as its derivation may be (originally, from toile, a cloth), has itself a coarse ring in English. I guess bathroom will have to serve, but inasmuch as a half bath has no bathing facilities — oh, never mind.

It's not terlet in itself that brings home to Grace and us how dismal her marriage is likely to be, but the word door does resonate, as they say.

And Ralph is on his way out on the town, after showing his thoughtfulness by reminding Grace to show up for the wedding.

"She smiled tiredly and opened the door for him. 'Don't worry, Ralph,' she said. 'I'll be there.'"

and

Perhaps by way of twitting the sort of English teacher who insists that one must never, ever, begin a sentence with and, Garrison Keillor begins each installment of his daily literary-history spot on public radio as follows: "And here's the Writer's Almanac for July 10, 2010," or whatever. It's as if the listener were arriving in the midst of an extended conversation, which after all is what public radio is. We may think of Wally Ballou, the nasal-toned roving reporter played by Bob Elliott and created by him and Ray Goulding, the great Bob and Ray. Wally would always come bouncing in on the second beat of his self-introduction: "-ly Ballou here!"

And leans forward, provides action for a spring ahead. But, on the other hand, brings the reader/listener to a halt, a pre-turnaround snag. Consider the following statement:

"You gotta do what you gotta do and sometimes you do it with tears in your eyes."

That is what reputed Genovese capo Thomas Ricciardi testified that mob hit man Michael "Mikey Cigars" Coppola told him, and other pals, with regard to his, Coppola's, whacking of their associate John "Johnny Coca-Cola" Lardiere.

To recap: according to Ricciardi, Coppola admitted to Ricciardi and others that he, Coppola, had whacked Lardiere. And this, Ricciardi alleged, was Coppola's philosophical gloss on the thing:

"You gotta do what you gotta do and sometimes you do it with tears in your eyes."

This new dimension to an old cliché befits a time when wiseguys are reduced to being named after soft drinks. But who would have expected the sentiment to be so nicely metrical? It flows as if inevitable, as if it comes from an age-old ballad:

Let's say some day I gotta shoot you,
Or you, or you, or all of you guys.
You gotta do what you gotta do
And sometimes you do it with tears in your eyes.

On occasion — you know this is true —
You off your old lady. Everyone dies.
You gotta do what you gotta do
And sometimes you do it with tears in your eyes.

What I find most striking about Coppola's homily, however, is that he didn't say but sometimes you do it — shoot a friend and colleague to death in cold blood — with tears in your eyes. That would have suggested a qualm, a touch of regret.

He said and. As in, "I did what I had to, and I did it even though it made me feel a little blue." Or, "I did it, and I did it in the right spirit, too." With but, there's an element of grimness. With and, the whacker's tears make his response to duty's call even finer. Who says hit men don't need to feel good about themselves?

But not everyone has a hit man's moral agility. The other day in the grocery store I heard a small child mutter to an adult, "I'm sorry."

"And . . . ?" said the adult.

"An' won't do it again," the child said quickly.

"But . . ."

"But . . . I 'said that last time'? And . . . but — okay okay what what?" said the child.


Excerpted from Alphabetter Juice by Roy Blount, Jr. Published in May 2011 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Roy Blount, Jr. All rights reserved.

Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty-three books, about everything from the first woman president of the United States to what barnyard animals are thinking. The most recent, Alphabetter Juice (Farrar, Straus), is out in hardback. He is a regular panelist on NPR's "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!" and is a usage consultant to the American Heritage Dictionary. To learn more about his work, please visit his website.


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Roy Blount, Jr. tells us how he put together "Alphabet Juice."
Read an excerpt from the opening chapter of "Alphabet Juice."