Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

A Jaunt Through the Alphabet with Roy Blount, Jr.

Recently we had the opportunity to talk to Roy Blount, Jr. about his entertaining new book Alphabet Juice, subtitled "The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory." In this idiosyncratic dictionary, Blount distills a lifelong love affair with the English language into pithy observations on everything from amazing ("Can't anybody say 'wonderful' or 'splendid' or even 'far-out' anymore?") to zoology ("Pronounced zo-ology. Not zoo-ology. Look at the letters. Count the o's"). Blount told us about some of his inspirations for the book and explained how language can be loose without being imprecise.

VT: How long have you been collecting the words that have gone into this book?

RB: I've actually been collecting them all my life. I've been writing them down since high school. I've got a big cache of old notebooks that I've been writing in, recording ways people have used words in conversation or in writing that appealed to me or bothered me.  I've just always been obsessed with words and loved messing with them, loved keeping my ears perked up for interesting expressions.

VT: It must have been quite a challenge to try to get a whole lifetime's worth of notes about words into a book in A to Z format.

RB: I can't find some of the notebooks, so that's probably a blessing.  But I just roamed around through all the notes and I've still got enough for another book.

VT: So we might have a sequel to this one?

RB: I hope so. But I also then worked on it a lot after I mined things from my notebooks.  I always wanted to do a book like this, but I figured I had to have some kind of gimmick or something.  And finally I organized things around my resistance to the notion espoused by the science of linguistics that the relation between a word and its meaning is arbitrary.  That just sort of pissed me off.  It's like saying your parents could have been just anybody.  And yes they could have been, but they weren't.

VT: What exactly bothered you so much about the idea that language is fundamentally an arbitrary system?

RB: Well, it just seems to deny the evidence of the senses, and it leaves out most of the things that I find fascinating and enjoyable about language — and the things that I need to know and need to use to write well.  Universal human hard-wired grammar has nothing to do with how well people write.  As I say in the book, I don't have any right to prescribe anything, but I have a long dedication to dealing words over the counter, and I think that counts for something.

VT: Reading your book, I get a whiff of H.L. Mencken and others who've written sardonically about the English language.  Who did you find inspiration from when you were putting this together?

RB: Mencken, sure. I've got all the volumes of Mencken's book, The American Language, and I love browsing around in that.  I love the kind of energy that Mencken put into and derived from writing about words.  And Mencken was a writer, he was not at all academic.  He was somebody who was out there.  He was a practitioner, and an extremely vigorous one.  I've always enjoyed his work about words.  Sometimes I disagree with him, but I've just always loved him. 

I love the way he was able to write in prose styles in a highly sensuous and unabstract way.  I love language that becomes physical and appeals to all the senses, and Mencken's prose style was like that.  And hardly anybody writes like that anymore. It seems a shame to me. Sometimes it's hollow and showing off when people try to do that. In order for your prose to be pyrotechnical, it has to be grounded in something too. Mencken had a deep sense of the way people talked and how people used language in the street and in newspapers and in common parlance.  And he also had a great appetite for learning about language in all directions.

VT: Any other influences?

RB: Well, E. B. White. The Strunk and White book, Elements of Style, I've always liked.  I've had a copy of that since I was in high school, actually.  I had a 10th grade English teacher who told me I should be a writer.  That was about the point when I was realizing I was not going to be a three-sport immortal.  And she gave me E. B. White and Thurber and S. J. Perlman and Robert Benchley to read.  She also told me about the Strunk and White book, and I've always loved that little book.  It's a tight little book, but it's a nice starchy influence in lots of ways.

VT: You've served on the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. How was that experience?

RB: I tend to be very conservative in my responses, just because somebody's got to be. For instance, there's the word hopefully, which I write about a lot in the book. "Hopefully, the Chinese will begin to lose influence in the world."  That just bothers me because they're not going to hopefully lose influence. That's a conservative position, I realize.

VT: So do you find yourself often in the embattled minority on usage questions?

RB: Sometimes, yes, I'm on the "hell no!" side. But I like language that's loose, in the sense of loosey-goosey — I like the vernacular and neologisms. I just don't like imprecision that falls on the stuffy side. In fact, the vernacular tends to be more precise than formal English sometimes. Like with hopefully: when the mail order company says, "Hopefully, your order will arrive by Christmas," you don't know whether they mean that they hope so or you hope so. It's a way of avoiding responsibility.

VT: In the book, you defend some stigmatized forms that come out of the vernacular, such as ain't.

RB: Ain't nothing wrong with ain't. There's no confusion about what ain't means.

VT: Your discussion of whom was interesting too.

RB: I think that with whom it's kind of a vexed issue. There was a bad whom in The New Yorker a couple weeks ago: a whom that should have been a who. That's a shame, I think. As I said in the book, I don't mind a who that strictly speaking should have been a whom.  But a whom that should have been a who is the kind of thing that really bothers me because it's clear that the person's not just being casual, the person is erring on the side of over-formality.

VT: And then there are usage issues with terms that you've found have changed from one sense to another and you can't really use the old one or the new one anymore, like "beg the question."

RB: You can harangue and jump up and down and complain about what's right and what's wrong, but after a while it gets to the point where if you're in the business of using language in the media, you have to realize that a given meaning may have been lost and you might as well accept it and move on.  But that doesn't mean you have to use it in the new sense. You can just think of some other way to make the point.

VT: You also have quite a lot to say about the language of sports, given your background in sports writing.

RB: Lots of vernacular terms have arisen out of sports, obviously because sports bring a lot of people from the streets and from the farm into the mainstream, so it's a rich source of new language.

VT: Along with the vernacular expressions from sports players, you talk about how sportswriters, particularly baseball writers, are fond of using "elegant variations." Why do you think that is? 

RB: You know, when ball players use expressions, they tend to be connected to how bad their knee hurts or how they slammed somebody into the dirt.  Sportswriters' heads hurt and they haven't ever slammed anybody except in print, so their language tends to be a little less vigorous, though of course there are some great sportswriters.

VT: You also consult "Urban Dictionary" a fair bit.

RB: I like it. I found that, as opposed to the Wikipedia principle, it seemed to me a genuinely democratic operation. I think the more interesting definitions tend to rise to the top.  But there's a lot of nastiness in there and your standard Internet meanness. I think jokes have been ruined by the Internet.  Jokes used to be an oral tradition, and now people will send you 50 jokes in an e-mail, all written down and frozen. To some extent, Urban Dictionary puts me off in that sense, but the fact that there's so many different people defining the same words has a kind of rough validity to it that I like.  And I don't know how else I would find out what some things mean.  If I would have to go hang out with 10th graders, that would be a little suspicious, so it's a lot better to go to Urban Dictionary.

VT: You've made your own contributions to Urban Dictionary as well?

RB: Two. It used to be that my definition of alligator arm was rated number one, but I noticed the other day that there are two or three ahead of it.  I defined it purely in terms of catching a pass in football.  But since then, other people have defined it in terms of avoiding paying a check or shrinking up.  And I'm also in for tweak, which I define in a sporting sense, as in, "he tweaked his knee," meaning he slightly injured his knee.  But there's so many prurient definitions to tweak, I'm sort of buried by now.

VT: That's the problem with any common word — so many other meanings can get piled on top of it.

RB: I like the fact that the last I looked, the number one definition of the word the was "a common misspelling of teh."

VT: In the book you mention another ironic definition from Urban Dictionary: book is defined as "an object used as a coaster, increase the height of small children, or increase the stability of poorly built furniture." These days the printed word is often treated as something quaint, a museum piece.

RB: Exactly. I was reading the New York Times on the plane yesterday and tearing things out of it.  And I hardly had room to move my arms.  And the woman next me was tapping on her laptop and I was making all these rustling and ripping noises and things were all flying around.  I suddenly became conscious of how preposterous a medium I was working in. But I still favor it.

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:

Wednesday February 11th 2009, 7:38 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)
Always refreshing to hear from Blount (but I don't always understand exactly what he means).
Wednesday February 11th 2009, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Is Mr. Blount saying that one should abandon usage of skunked terms? Or, use the old meaning with greater clarity?
Wednesday February 11th 2009, 1:08 PM
Comment by: Sandy F. (Tucson, AZ)
and 'skunked terms' would mean? related to a bad odor? as related to the malodorous scent that reminds one of a skunk???!
Wednesday February 11th 2009, 1:14 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Sandy: Check out my Word Routes column on nonplussed and bemused as well as the one on enormity for more on skunked terms. As I say in the second column, a skunked term has "a historical meaning that confuses those unfamiliar with it and a newer meaning that irks traditionalists, leaving no one happy."
Thursday February 12th 2009, 12:07 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.

I realize now that my earlier comment was intended to advance a previous conversation, but for those not privy to the conversation it was nonplussed.

The coining of "skunked terms" certainly must embrace the metaphorical odor. That's unfortunate, as it is fairly obvious from etymological history that words evolve, often due the the "wrong" reasons.

Mr. Blount said:

"You can harangue and jump up and down and complain about what's right and what's wrong, but after a while it gets to the point where if you're in the business of using language in the media, you have to realize that a given meaning may have been lost and you might as well accept it and move on."

If you've had a chance to check out the references for skunked terms (and the resultant commentary) Ben provided, you will see that there has been a fair amount of "harangue, jump and complain" about "lost" meanings. Admittedly, I sparked some of it, blissfully ignorant of being on the new meaning side, or that there was an old meaning for that matter.

I was hoping Mr. Blount was advocating accepting, even if reluctantly, new meanings, but find ways to use the old meanings with clarity ("But that doesn't mean you have to use it in the new sense. You can just think of some other way to make the point."). Although, the same quote could just as easily be read to suggest abandonment of the old and avoidance of the new.
Thursday February 12th 2009, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
I guess it would be more proper to have said in my previous comment:
"I realize now that my earlier comment was intended to advance a previous conversation, but for those not privy to the conversation it rendered them nonplussed."

Trying to get the usage correct as described in Vocab Lab: Color Me Nonplussed.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 1:19 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Not sure whether I understand this or not...
Monday April 6th 2009, 3:23 PM
Comment by: Thomas P. (Shrewsbury, MA)
"there's so many different people..." Hopefully (In this case I'm the one who hopes.) Mr. Blount was simply guilty of an unconscious malapropism, or does he ask us to accept the use of the singular verb form with a plural subject? However pervasive this usage may have become, it is not and never can become correct anymore than the spineless acquiescence to feminist pressure in the matter of the, now seemingly mandatory use of plural pronouns with singular antecedents lest a masculine bias be inferred (sic.): A person may do what they want...what WHO wants? Such usage makes the ubiquitous "hopefully" appear a model of clarity.

Having relieved myself of that attack of grammatical hyper-acidity, I have always enjoyed Roy Blounts richly colorful use of the English language in which he has few peers.

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Like "beg the question," words like "nonplussed" and "bemused" have become "skunked terms."
Blount spoke about his new book in New York, and VT subscribers got free complimentary admission.
William Safire also found inspiration in H.L. Mencken.