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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Roy Blount Jr on Words

I was always taught that except for certain onomatopoetic words - boing, beep-beep, ker-splash - that the sounds associated with words was purely arbitrary.  That the word 'water' had no specific connection with its meaning, and that we might as well have called it 'xylophone' or 'cloaca.'  I'm not sure where I was taught this - maybe I picked it up on the streets - but the conventional wisdom (an oxymoron if there ever was one) went that even for onomatopoeia, the sounds were ultimately arbitrary.  So that in America cows moo, but in Britain, they low.  Somehow, though, I had a deep obstinate sense that this was not so.  My friend and drama director in college, John Blair, always pronounced water with a hard t instead of as I did,  Somehow, when he said it, "wah-ter" the word sounded more liquid, more like water, than the way I said it like "wad-er."
Now comes Roy Blount to the rescue, with his book Alphabet Juice, the premise of which is that there is something in the sound of words themselves that relates to their meaning.  That we cannot, for example, call a xylophone a tuba, because there is something xylophonish in the very word, and something tuba-ish in that word.
I am not making this clear as Roy Blount would, so I'll insert this video of his discussion of the F-Word, so you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Sonny Brewer raves, my new book, "Paradise Dogs is so funny and so damn right."  Look for it in bookstores this Spring from Thomas Dunne Books.

1 comment:

  1. Always heard that the F-word was created when English bobbies would write it in the "Charge" block when they'd arrest prostitutes. Supposedly it was the abbreviation of: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.