In Alphabet Juice, Roy Blount Jr. Proves Himself a Wordsmith for the Ages 

One day when I was four years old and my sister just three, I saw her pick up the biggest book in the house and begin to read aloud.

"Mama, come quick!" I shouted. "Jeannie's reading the dictionary!"

My mother hurried into the living room as my sister pointed to two tiny pictures on a page filled with dense, incomprehensible words and began to recite: "Once there was a bear who went for a walk in the woods, where he met a bee. 'Hello,' he said to the bee, 'I want some honey.'"

Mom merely laughed. Much later, when I was able to read well enough to understand exactly how I'd been had that day, I was sorely disappointed. (To be fair, I surely deserved to have my little sister pull one over on me, as this was about the same time I talked her into putting a bean up her nose. But I digress.) For years, I had clung to the notion that the dictionary really did hide stories, if only someone knew how to go about finding them.

Turns out, someone does. Luckily for those who care about words, that someone is Roy Blount Jr., who happens to be one of the wittiest writers alive (not to mention a graduate of Vanderbilt). Blount has, at long last, finished the job my sister started, in Alphabet Juice, a book that is part etymology and part social commentary but mostly a dictionary with stories. At least, it's a dictionary in the sense that it is a compendium of words, with some phrases and names thrown in, arranged in alphabetical order. (That's alphabetical as opposed to muomegical, which, Blount cautions, is what we would be stuck with had mu and omega happened to be the first two Greek letters, rather than alpha and beta).

The intellectual playfulness of this book is best summed by its subtitle, perhaps one of the longest to be published in English since the 18th century: 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. The 18th century echoes are not entirely accidental, for even though Blount discusses mic and e-mail and words like teh that have evolved from texting accidents, his heart seems to lie more in such entries as phlegm, nitpicking, ornery and cantankerous. The section on the abbreviation Jr., for example, goes to some lengths to explain why Blount never puts a comma in front of his own suffix. It's as if the fussy, fidgety Dr. Johnson (author of a great dictionary) and the urbane, licentious Boswell (author of a great biography) were squeezed into a single person, with the result that their wittiest barroom banter becomes all mixed up in the dictionary. When reading Alphabet Juice, one never knows whether one is looking up a word or a punch line.

"Reading," however, may be too strong a word. "If you read this book the way I would read it and the way I've written it," Blount writes in his preface, "you will wear it out, thumbing back and forth, without ever being sure you've read it all." This sort of thumbing is encouraged because most entries reference others elsewhere in the book.

The length of each definition varies greatly. Minimalism, for example, reads in its entirety, "A little of it goes a long way," while the entry on the letter D takes up nearly three pages, and the one on the verb tump goes on for five. But on average, entries tend to run a little less than half a page, which means that most readers will go through four or five per session—because most readers will likely wind up placing the book in the same room I put it, a room where, in the term coined by a memorable episode of Seinfeld, it will become "flagged."

To put it less delicately (more Blountly?), Alphabet Juice may be the greatest bathroom reading material ever published. The entries are invariably funny, always surprising, and can be consumed in no particular order, with days or weeks or years between readings. They vary from esoteric and scholarly to the chatty and personal. Blount tells one story, for example, under the heading, Wilt: A Tall Tale, about a heated exchange he once mediated, while working as a staff writer for Sports Illustrated, between basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and both an editor and a switchboard operator at the magazine concerning the relative usage and merits of the articles a and the. In 1985, when I was in graduate school, I heard Blount tell a version of this story as a visiting lecturer, and a few years later, while freelancing for SI myself, I happened to meet one of the principals, who confirmed that it occurred more or less in the unlikely manner Blount describes here.

Alphabet Juice is, in short, the story the dictionary has always wanted to tell, and reading it is way more fun than putting beans up your nose.


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