The 2011 organizational rankings are up on ESPN.com for Insiders. The two most upset fan bases are Cleveland, because I ranked them 17th; and the Yankees, because I didn’t rank the Red Sox 30th.
“It’s good that they don’t make many players like Albert Pujols, because if there were more, he wouldn’t be so special, and Albert Pujols is very special.” – Murray Chass, The New York Times. See special.
Roy Blount, Jr., humorist, former sportswriter, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me… panelist, and word-lover, takes aim at etymology and bad writing alike in Alphabet Juice, a book organized like a dictionary and aiming both high and low with its targets. If you like words and get equal joy from a malapropism and an explanation of how livid (which means furious, with a connotation of red-faced) comes from the Latin word meaning “to be bluish,” this is a book for you.
In Alphabet Juice, Blount chooses words with interesting stories or for which he can offer a brief quote (like the one above) or quip or (regrettably) some light verse. The anecdote that constitutes the entry for “TV, on being on” runs from William Ginsburg to Saul Bellow to Designing Women to Kathleen Sullivan to Claude Monet, all inside of four pages. Blount sneaks in some memoir-ish material as well, such as an entry for “Wilt: A Tall Tale,” that starts out with musings on whether Wilt Chamberlain could really have slept with 20,000 women (Wilt: “Well, there was this one birthday party…”) but ends with Blount mediating between an angry Wilt and Blount’s drunken editor.
Some of the entries reveal Blount as a Lynne Truss-ian grammar stickler, a bent of which I approve:
I have to be firm on this: unique is not to be modified. Adding very or absolutely is like putting a propeller on a rabbit to make him hop better. It won’t work, and he won’t be a rabbit any more.
I’ve always been partial to the analogy that something can be “almost unique” in the way that you can be “almost pregnant.” There is a word for the idea expressed by “almost unique” – unusual. Use it. Please.
Blount’s love of words (aside from a love of language – these are two different afflictions) even brings this fun entry that should appeal to the anagrammists and Scrabblers in the audience:
> transposition game
Rearranging the letters in one word of an existing title or well-known phrase. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception becomes The Odors of Perception. The Continental Army becomes the continental Mary. I’m told that Burt Bernstein, then a writer at The New Yorker, learned of this game and found himself to be good at it. He hastened to his brother Leonard, who had always been better at everything than Burt, but now, finally, maybe … Burt explained the game. Leonard looked up from whatever major thing he was doing and said: “Icy fingers up and down my penis.”
If there’s a flaw in Alphabet Juice, it’s that it’s a book to be perused rather than read. There’s no narrative, and the themes and jokes to which Blount returns again and again are scattered throughout the book. You could follow his suggestions to see other entries, but would risk never reading everything in the book, a risk I was unwilling to take. I could also have done without the meditations on each individual letter – Blount is supporting an argument he makes that the relation between a word (its sound, that is) and its meaning is not, as some scholars would have it, arbitrary. That’s an interesting debate, but not one Blount is going to solve in 300-word essays on each of the 26 letters of our alphabet.
At heart, though, Alphabet Juice is a vehicle for Blount’s ruminations not just on language but on culture and cultural literacy, on politics (he was apparently not a fan of the most recent President Bush), on music, on food, and so on. If you like his smart-folksy style, you’ll love the book.
P.S. Tender is the Thing.
Next up: Hilary Mantel’s Fludd, which I’m reading at the rate of roughly 15 pages a day because of all the writing.