A Word on Words
In his latest book, author Roy Blount, Jr., puts the English language under the microscope.
Black & White: As a Georgian, were you excited when Jimmy Carter was elected president?
Roy Blount: Yeah, I was sort of astonished and bemused. I just never expected anybody from Georgia to get elected president. I liked Mo Udall in the primaries. But when Carter got nominated, I was for him. I wrote a book called Crackers, which was largely inspired by my surprise that the leader of the free world was, all of a sudden, a white guy from Georgia. When we were watching the nominating convention, my brother-in-law Gerald, who is from east Texas, jumped up and hollered, “We ain’t trash no more!”
You once compared Democratic presidential candidate and philanderer Gary Hart to former Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom because of Folsom’s habit of kissing women on the campaign trail.
I never met Big Jim Folsom, but I heard a lot of good stories about him. Supposedly, he was at an air show with a bunch of French people. The Alabama National Guard had some kind of trick-flying formation. And all of a sudden a bunch of them ran into each other and exploded. There was an awkward pause and Folsom said, “Well, kiss my ass if that ain’t a show.”
Until I found it in Alphabet Juice, I was not familiar with the word “swive.” [Blount writes: "As early as the beginning of the fourteenth century, this was the most common slang term for 'to do it with someone.' It's a good one, too, smoother—might even say more suave—than the F-word."]
“Swive” is a good word, I think. It has a kind of nice force to it. It’s like “swing.” Most of the “sw” words, like “swing and swag and swagger,” are kind of groovy. A word that starts with “f” is often harsh.
You recount film critic Pauline Kael’s review of Reds, where she wrote that Warren Beatty’s character was “pussy-whipped,” and you told her that the New Yorker would never print such a word.
I suggested she change that to “uxorious,” and she just rolled her eyes. [Kael eventually described Beatty's character as "timid."]
Do you recall any particular arguments with editors regarding words you were defending?
I remember I went down to Mansfield, Louisiana, to interview the mother and the football coach of [Major League pitcher] Vida Blue because I was doing a story about him for Sports Illustrated. And I talked to his mother, and then I went and interviewed his old football coach. The coach said, “Well, Vida’s left-handed but if he got in a tight, he could throw with his right.” The editor wanted to change it to: “If he got in a tight ‘spot,’ he could throw with his right.” I said, “No, no, no! It’s got to rhyme!” I finally talked him into it, but he just didn’t see why. [The editor] thought that would be confusing: “Nobody’s going to understand. They would think that we inadvertently left out a word.”
You once wrote: “Rush Limbaugh is like Dom DeLuise trying to do George Wallace.” Have you ever met Limbaugh?
[Laughing] I’d forgotten that, but I’m glad I said it.
No . . . We don’t travel in the same circles. I haven’t listened to Rush in a long time. He reminds me of all these people of my ethnic background that I have, to some extent, justly scorned. In my formative years, I felt embarrassed by all the white Southern men who were holding forth in various mean-spirited and dismissive ways. I realized that I had some kind of connection to that heritage and I needed to just separate myself from it and explain it to some extent and all that. But suddenly, when people like Rush Limbaugh came along, basically saying the same thing—except a little less crudely, I suppose—that really pissed me off.
Do you think Al Franken would make a good senator?
Well, I haven’t been following his race. I know Franken a little bit. It’s strange for a comedian to aspire to be a senator, of course. But [former Republican House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay was an exterminator, wasn’t he? And, I hear, a good one. &
Admission is $35 and includes a signed copy of Alphabet Juice. The evening’s proceeds will benefit WBHM 90.3 radio. The Doubletree Hotel is located at 808 20th Street South; 933-9000.