Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Witty writing on words, à la Roy Blount, Jr.

Whether your vocabulary cravings tend toward the mot juste or the just plain juicy, you'll enjoy Roy Blount, Jr.'s Alphabet Juice. I have relished his ready wit on NPR's Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me, but it's combined here with erudition and oodles of fascinating etymologies. Here's the beginning of his discourse on the term "ideal reader."
Ezra Pound
In 1911, Ezra Pound, who at this point in his life tended to wear “trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point, and a single, large blue earring,” presented himself to the influential novelist and editor Ford Madox Ford—a corpulent Britisher conventionally dressed and heavily mustachioed, whose highly readable memoir is our source for Pound's attire. Pound had poetry for Ford to read.
I love this riff on Cole Porter's lyrical brilliance:
When Cole Porter in I Get a Kick Out of You explains why he doesn't get one out of air travel, he gets an extraordinary amount of juice out of the sound of long i: “Flying too high in the sky / Is my idea of nothing to do.” That i keeps ascending in the mouth, pushing against the roof, and just when you think it's as high as 'twill fly—to the sky—it double-clutches, up, again, to my and then, again, to the initial i-; and tumbles: -dea of nothing to do. “'S Wonderful,” I would say, but that's Gershwin.
Now there's a man attuned to the music of language. 
There are other bones I might pick with my dictionary, Blount declares on another randomly opened page (313). To wit: “It doesn't seem to realize that dickens, as in what the dickens, is a euphemism for devil, and it doesn't mention that a child can be called a little dickens.” On page 328, he's still going strong, declaring that he's "going to show you what is the most balanced word in English.... level. Balanced perfectly on the point of middle v."
I'll conclude this Blount sampler with one of his typically funny stories. The topic is "TV, being on."
I don't want to leave the impression that TV people are necessarily insensitive. Once I did an essay-to-camera about U.S. politics for BBC-TV. For part of it, I strolled past the Washington Monument, explaining America to the mother country. A tiny microphone was concealed on my person. The camera crew was way over on the other side of the street, a good fifty yards away. On the screen eventually back in Britain it would be clear that I was speaking to the viewer, but to passersby there in Washington I appeared to be talking to myself—or else to them, the passersby. “Excuse me?” someone would say, and we would have to start over. Before one take I cleared my throat so loudly that a kind old lady asked me if I was all right. “I'm on television,” I explained. She looked at me sadly. 
I didn't want her to think I was insane, or that I was putting her on. “See,” I confided, “I'm a writer, I don't usually do this kind of—this is the dumbest thing!” I cut my eyes over toward the TV people, decent hardworking folks. Clearly they had heard what I said, through our microphonic connection, and their feelings were hurt.


  1. I had never thought about what would be the most balanced word in the English language, but I would probably put Level on any short list.

    Roy Blount Jr. is always one of my favorite panelists on Wait Wait (which is not saying much, because there aren't any panelists I don't like).

    Here's to hoping I one day have Carl Kassel's voice on my voicemail or home answering machine.

  2. Always a treat to read anything of Roy Blount Jr. And a study of Cole Porter's lyrics shows his brilliant use of the language.

    I'm also very fond of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are". The line, You are the breathless hush of evening/ That trembles on the brink..of a lovely song" follows a break in the music perfectly.

    I really think the best lyrics came from these two composers. They've helped enliven many a shower.

    1. Kern's songs are sooooo timeless. Even though written for music hall contexts and the earliest of American musicals (Showboat), they are easily and beautifully adapted to jazz as well as being sung as art songs.

  3. Another "open mike" moment! It reminds me of the time Nancy Kerrigan was caught opining on the intelligence of sitting next to Goofy at Disney World.
    LeveL is not only balanced, it's creaseable down the middle!

  4. I took a little gander at Alphabet Juice, quick fun read!!!!