This book is a sort of lexicon, except that instead of definitions there are riffs. These are some of the author's favorite words, or at least words that he wanted to write about. He likes to pronounce words, and reflects on words whose pronounciation seems to reflect their meaning.
This sounds like a self-indulgent book, but Roy Blount Jr wrote it, and it so happens that I am curious to know what Blount thinks about word sounds because he has a better writer's ear than I do. I care what he has to say about these words. He also writes about letters. He writes convincingly and charmingly about these words. Here's an example:
agenda Why is this a perjorative term? What's wrong with having an agenda? I wish to hell I had more of one. (Is that good English? "More of one?" I think it is, but it doesn't look printworthy.) Politicians play on the word's souding sort of dirty, like ...pudenda?
It comes from the Latin plural for "things to be done," but in English, it's singular.
He has some agendas himself. He just wishes you'd stop misusing just. He wishes you used literally to mean what it literally means. He argues his cases well. He's so convincing that he almost got me putting the hyphen back in e-mail before I realized what was happening. Keep your wits about you.
He cites dictionaries, friends, Yogi Berra, UrbanDictionary.com. The book, published in 2008, is already dated. He claims he googled [cancan "no panties"] and got no results. Today, there are about 150 though most of them, as you might expect, are not very interesting results, automatically-generated nonsense "dancing girls cancan no panties florida's top ten attractions" yeah whatever. He's aware of this advance of information. In the entry for "Google", he wonders "Has Google rounded up a googol of data bits yet? Depends on when you read this." (But he's exaggerating--there aren't a googol particles in the universe; storing a googol bits is thus technically difficult.) Blount is modern, of course. He outs himself as an UrbanDictionary contributor. (He has a feed, you can subscribe to it.)
(I should also point out: this book can go on for several paragraphs without mentioning pudenda or panties or a lack of panties. The book's not filthy. But it doesn't tiptoe around the dirt, either. That's a good thing--when this book says that the "buck" in "the buck stops here" doesn't refer to filthy bribe money, I believe it.)
So what you have here is a series of short essays in alphabetical order. Belles lettres? Sure. Great words, great words... "mnemonic" "Moebius statement" "monkeys". If you love words, this can be a slow book to read. Swann had his cookie; but words have associations, too. You can get lost in nostalgia. Like the entry for tallywacker. It's not enough to read Blount's opinion. I had to dig through my old comic books until I found issue #3 of "When My Brother Was God" so I could re-experience this quote, this rant by a dorm resident annoyed at what she hears through thin walls: "Mommy raised me a nice girl; I didn't go to twelve years of Catholic school simply to shout Jesus Christ his talleywhacker [sic] must be ripping out her esophagus at random intervals, oh no." The entries for tmesis and zeugma--each left me giddy. He mentions Morse (in the entry for wrought, and has entries for dash and dot.
He's not familiar with software development. He doesn't understand our sense of recursion, though he understands that he has used it to excess. (But, in his defense, who hasn't?) He mentions that weevil comes from the same root as "wave", which might suggest a naming convention to folks working on a certain software project but maybe it's a bit late to point it out. He has an entry for truthiness. I was talking with Matt L. at work about software development, about the demo that looks good, but has rickety underpinnings. Matt coined a term that needed coining, the software-scheduling equivalent of truthiness: done-iness. I guess my point is that we can't expect Blount to take care of everything for us.
But he does plenty. This book is a fun read; check it out.
Labels: book, letters, words