Alphabet Juice

ain’t:  Too bad this tangy, useful verb, which was standard in the 18th century, has been so stigmatized since the 19th.

Just as y’all, as a plural of you, fills a gap in English, so does ain’t as a contraction of am not. Anyone attempting to pronounce amn’t may attract a crowd of well-wishers admiring his or her pluck, but whatever other words the speaker surrounds it with will be lost. And compare:

(a) “I’m not going.”

(b) “I ain’t going.”

Which one of the two do you think is a lot more likely to be going?

alphabet-juiceOh, how I wish I could quote more, or possibly all, of Roy Blount Jr.’s wonderful book Alphabet Juice to you. He has not written just another word book, not just another person’s opinionated take on punctuation or neologisms. He is hugely informative, giving you acres of etymology and the derivations of words as diverse as apophthegm and zephyr; he explains commas and hyphens (and even though I am slightly at odds with him on the apostrophe, I must, grudgingly, concede his point); he pokes into pronunciation.

But better than all this, he is gleeful. He joyfully pounces on words that are fun to say — sonicky, in his coinage — and nudges you in the ribs, saying, don’t you love that one, too, huh? He makes jokes and limericks and double-dactyls, slant-rhymes and half-rhymes and non-rhymes (words that look like they should rhyme but don’t, like baseline/Vaseline.) He gets irate about disinterested/uninterested and the willful misuse of myself when it should be me. He tells a story about Byron that had me completely helpless with laughter. He plays with language, making the insistent point that language should be distinctive, should sound good, should pack a punch. This book is equal parts wordplay, anecdote, information, and hoot. Everyone who loves language should read it.

Here. Before I let you go to the store and get it, I’ll give you one more quotation. It’s the entry about “what-if history,” and I agree with it wholeheartedly:

I distrust anything that tries to establish what would have happened if — if Lee had or hadn’t done something at Gettysburg, for instance, and the Civil War had gone the other way. The main thing history teaches us, as far as I can see, is that we don’t know what happened. And now we’re arguing about what would’ve if it hadn’t?

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4 Responses to Alphabet Juice

  1. Eva says:

    This sounds like fun! :)

  2. Teresa says:

    I’m curious as to your disagreement over apostrophes. Given my line of work, I know the punctuation controversies, and I’m uncommited on most of them. Just give me a style guide, and I’ll apply the style.

  3. Jenny says:

    Eva — it is, it really is. I keep wanting to dip back into it. I liked it much more than I initially thought I would.

    Teresa — he points out that people say the rule is not to use apostrophes for plurals (apostrophe’s for plural’s?) But then he says that you must say that there are four i’s in Mississippi. You can’t say that there are four is in Mississippi — it looks funny. Or four ss, for that matter. Reluctantly, I had to agree.

  4. Teresa says:

    Jenny: Yes, I know that particular apostrophe conundrum well. You can get around it by using italics, which is what we do when writing about students getting As on their report cards. But no matter what you do, it’s going to look funny. I wondered if it was the whole descriptive or possessive question that arises in terms like “Farmers Market” (I’m totally agnostic on that one) or whether to use an apostrophe for possession when the person’s name ends in s (and I’m solidly in favor of the apostrophe there.) And yes, I’ve seen people get very, very passionate over these kinds of questions.

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