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Originally published Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Humorist uncorks a language elixir in "Alphabet Juice"

"Alphabet Juice" by Roy Blount Jr. puts the National Public Radio funny guy's finely attuned ear for the oddities of the English language on display.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Alphabet Juice"

by Roy Blount Jr.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 364 pp., $25

Roy Blount Jr., to my mind America's subtlest and most gifted funny guy, has always been drunk on words. He loves English — no, he luuurves it — with a zesty passion. This trait is amply proven by his writing and his frequent appearances on National Public Radio's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me." Furthermore, as a professional word-man and a Southerner who lives in New England, Blount has a finely attuned ear for both the grating misuse and the pithy turn of phrase.

So it's no wonder that his new book, "Alphabet Juice," finds Blount happily wallowing in words. He celebrates them, reminisces about them, points out odd things about them, and in general relentlessly searches out (excuse me, can't resist) le mot juice.

Naturally, the book is organized alphabetically, starting with an anecdote about a Mississippi State football coach (it has to do with getting straight A's) and ending with zyzzyva (a class of weevils). In between we get a lot of yeasty stuff, including:

• How, but for a quirk of history, instead of being Anglophones (English speakers) we could all be Saxophones.

• Why the hyphen in "e-mail" is so important.

• How some words are just fun to say (my own favorites include "baba ghanouj," an eggplant dish, and the name of the singer Raul Malo).

• The importance of rhythm in a written sentence.

• Some amazing puns ("your thighbone kinetic to your hipbone ... ")

• How the sounds of some words relate (or don't) to their meanings, and how that sound conveys feelings ("Sphincter is tight; goulash is lusciously hodgepodgy").

• The surprising origin of lava (a Neapolitan dialect word coined after Vesuvius blew, from the Old French lavasse (deluge of rain) and the Latin lavare (to wash).

Missing from this book, surprisingly, is a discussion of George Carlin's beautifully poetic riffs on the Seven Words You Can't Say on Television (but you can go to YouTube to see examples of the late comedian-philosopher's remarks). Otherwise, though, you can open "Alphabet Juice" to any page and find something offbeat, on the beat, subjective, hilarious, and/or insightful. It's to be consumed, so to speak, with relish.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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