Language Mysteries Explained In 'Alphabet Juice' Why do pigs oink in English and chrjo in Russian? What does the word ma ma have to do with the word mammal? In his new book, Alphabet Juice, humorist and author Roy Blount Jr. traces the origins of everyday words and how they have changed over time.
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Language Mysteries Explained In 'Alphabet Juice'

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Language Mysteries Explained In 'Alphabet Juice'

Language Mysteries Explained In 'Alphabet Juice'

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This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Newseum, Washington D.C.'s newest museum devoted to journalism and the news business and there's an audience with us here in the Knight studio. And thanks very much for coming in, we appreciate it.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Roy Blount Jr.'s new book about words invites browsing. Open to page 267 and you'll find sesquipedelian - sesquipedalian, excuse me, which he writes describes a long uncommunicative word used for the sake of showing off. For instance, poganonamy, for shaving. Back on page 113, there's glottis, another word for the vocal apparatus of the larynx but you don't learn it in school Blount writes? Because the class - OK the boys, would find it comical. If as many scientist argue our brains our hardwired for language, Roy Blount Jr. says the current that flows through those filaments is alphabet juice, the quirky but venerable squiggles which through centuries have knocked about breathing and intimate contact with the human body have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth.

Later in the program, "Hold The Press" Murray Horwitz joins us here in the Newseum to talk about the great newspaper, radio and TV news movies of all time. You can send us your nominations now by email, the address is But first, if you'd like to talk with Roy Blount Jr. about the origins of words and language about the words you love to roll off your tongue, our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us You can also join the conversation on our blog at Roy Blount Jr. is here with us at the Newseum. The full title of his new book is "Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory." And thank you for letting me read that line.

Mr. ROY BLOUNT JR. (Author): You're right - have a long enough subtitle, you don't really have to answer any questions.

CONAN: You don't have to write much of a book either. This is in fact sort of a generational quest for you. You have ancestors who are in this business.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah. My great, very distant 16th century - no, 17th century ancestor Thomas Blount - Sir Thomas Blount put out the first dictionary that went in to etymology and all, it didn't go into etymology very well but it did place the roots of words. That came out in 1600 something and it was called "Blount's Glossographia."

CONAN: And yours is a glossographia as well.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah. Why not?

CONAN: Why not?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Glosso for word and graphia(ph) for scratching and writing.

CONAN: And you're argument - fundamental argument is indeed that the sounds of words do have connections with their meaning.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah. I mean - and that's true of simple words like through. A lot of people don't like to think about what goes on in their mouths very much but if you…

CONAN: There's tongues in there.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: As Robert Benchley described, the tongue as that awful-looking thing right back of your teeth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: But when you say the word through, you start out in the front of your mouth and goes straight back, and then there's a little breath that goes bounces back out, through. It's a very throughly throughsome word. And compare that to thwart which starts out like through but then it - that W jumps back up in front of you and slows you down and then ends in a T which is - ends in a wart as a matter-of-fact. And then there's the word throttle which starts out like through but then gets it back into your glottis back there and it's like being - little bit like being strangled.

CONAN: Throttle.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Throttle.

CONAN: Now, you came up with a word for the ways that sound can affect the meaning of words - sonickey(ph).

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Sonickey, yeah. The trouble with the word - linguist will say, OK there's onomatopoeia like in snap, crackle, and pop but that's - there's more than that going on. And one problem is that onomatopoeia is not a very onomatopoeic word...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: So I use the word in this book, the word sonickey which - I like - it has a K in it, one thing which is always good.

CONAN: And sounds like a hamburger, you might get at take out place.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Sonickey. I like to have a K because it's the sound of - it's like - it's got that sound which is either telling a horse to go or someone who appeals to you to let you approach.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Now, you've argued that at all - all language at some level is body language, all English is body English and who wants a tongue to be cut and dried. I just made a note in my book saying the Germans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah. Well, you know they're different if you look at the different words. One saying linguistitions have said is that - well, let me just mention pig noise. They say that pig noise - that the words are not - but the relationship between words and their meaning is arbitrary because pig noise is in English is oink and in Norway it goes something like niff niff or so or something and in Russian, Steven Pinker says in Russian pigs go chrju or something. Who knows how how that's pronounced? So, you know what? I Googled Russian pigs go, and I found out that in Russian pigs go hroo, hroo. Note that these are rolled R's and the H is more of a HK sound like when you try to build a loogey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Don't try and pronounce the K. Just phlegm up the H. So I think that's pretty good pig noise if you ask me. And it's sort of fits in with oink, pigs makes various noises.

CONAN: Phlegm is a pretty good word...

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Phlegm is a very good especially it's got that G in there. That's solid G but you know it's in there, and you know that you - it's going to come up hard when you say phlegmatic.

CONAN: We're talking with Roy Blount Jr. about his new book "Alphabet Juice." Junior is also a word that you write about in this book. You probably have a lot of experience with it.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah Someday I'm going to write " The Great Junior Book". You know both our - whoever gets elected president is going to be a - the namesake of his father, both McCain and - not only that but both vice presidents, Biden is a junior and Sarah Palin's mother was called Sally, but her name was Sarah. And in something like 38, 39 percent of American presidents have been named for their father, for his father, for their fathers. And so, it's an interesting thing. What it boils down to is when your call on the phone, when you're an adolescent boy, you answer the phone and they say, who's this and you say George, and they say, big George or little George and you hate that the rest of your life.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: And we have seen a junior presidency and a half this - most in the last eight years.

CONAN: I'm actually the third, and I got "Little Neal" during my whole childhood. Absolutely despise it.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Richard Cheney, well, you can imagine what he got.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. If you'd like to join our conversation with Roy Blount Jr. about words and how their sounds affect their meaning give us a call 800-989-8255, email us Let's start in South Bend, Indiana with Angela(ph).

ANGELA (Caller): Hi. First I'd like to say I love Talk of the Nation, my favorite show, I listen to it all the time. But I recall, this was maybe a year ago. I had started dating a guy and - picked me up for the first date and told me that I looked deciduous. And, I thought that he was a moron because of the meaning of the word deciduous.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Things were falling off you?

CONAN: In the fall?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANGELA: No, it was in February actually, but what he later explained to me. Because, I guess he caught the look on my face - he explained that he really dug the sounds of words as opposed to the meanings. And, I'm an English Lit major and I like - you know, I'm very in to etymology and the origins and meanings and whatever derivatives, and he was very much about sounds. And, he went on to explain about certain sounds sounded sexy or certain sounds of words made him hungry. Whatever. So from then on it's become my favorite word like whenever I'm I guess for the radio audience I guess frisky would be the word deciduous come to mind. It was just one of the most sensual things that he's ever - that any guy has ever said to me.

Mr. BLOU NT JR: Lot of things depend on context...

CONAN: Indeed. And sounded like he talked himself out a good one...

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Hey, I think that so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: You didn't have any leaves in your hair that were falling out or anything?

ANGELA: Well no.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Well the S is nice, deciduous. You know, I think there are sexier words than deciduous but each of us must decide these things for him or herself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Angela.

ANGELA: I think also, if you whisper. It's...

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah, if you whisper. Yeah.

CONAN: And Angela have a deciduous day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANGELA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get Laura(ph) on the line. Laura is calling from Fresno, California.

LAURA (Caller): Hi. I'm just actually driving all over the place. And I always listen to you when I drive. And I was thinking about words, and I have a two-year-old little boy, and his favorite word is beautiful. And he likes to say, if he looks nice that he looks beautiful. And my other children always say to him no, no, no you're a boy, you're supposed to be handsome. And he said, no, no, no, I'm beautiful. And I just think that's really interesting how we attach kind of this gender to our words and where that started that and why it is that so people think that you're pretty if you're a girl or you're beautiful if you're a girl. But you have to be handsome as a man, and I just - made me think about words and the subject and where that came.

CONAN: Have any ideas? Of course English doesn't have a male or female usages in its language.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Well, handsome has to do with hands and maybe men earn that in so - with in relation maybe men can't keep their hands off of beauty. I don't know...

CONAN: That's as good an answer as we're going to get. Laura, drive safely, please.

LAURA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. There are so many outstanding words in this but I have to say when we come back, we're going to be talking about some of your favorite one, two, and three word sentences because they've come together absolutely beautiful. And we're just going to read the collection of great one word sentences before we go away from the break. Forgetaboutit. That's a good one. Come'ere. Touche. Look. And, you write the actual last line of the "Maltese Falcon" which is not, as most people believed Humphrey Bogart's this is the stuff that dreams are made on but Ward Bond's response.


(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: One of the great questions in journalism.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: That's the - no one knows what the first word ever was. But I think the second word was, huh.

CONAN: Huh. Roy Blount Jr. is with us, he's new book is entitled "Alphabet Juice" and just - because it's so deciduous, I'm going to read the whole subtitle again, the energies, gists, and spirits of letters, words, and combinations thereof their roots, bones, innards, piths, pips, and secret parts, tinctures, tonics and essences with examples of their usage foul and savory. If you like to discuss any of those words or the usage, give us a call, 800-989-8255 email us Stay with us I'm Neal Conan, it's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the Knight Studio inside the Newseum in Washington D.C. It's not just individual words that Roy Blount, Jr. savors in his new book. He also picks out some of his favorite sentences. We just mentioned, some will have to say one-word sentences. Here are great three words sentences. Omit needless words. Ain't she sweet. The games afoot. Call me Ishmael. Baby it's you. And, they're off. I got it. And Roy Blount, Jr., apropo of the day the World Series gets under way there's a story after I got it.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah, Red Smith once wrote that there was a very stuck up - so I guess, he was a third base man named Bill Werber who was a stickler for correct usage. And he insisted that you shouldn't yell I got it. You should yell I have it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: He would tell his teammates, no it's wrong, it's wrong. It's I have it. So that's a good example of how 'I got it' is a lot more persuasive. And you know, if somebody says I have it, I have it, you don't think they've got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. No, actually we have a question to hear at the Newseum. Go ahead.

CHAD (Audience): Chad McVale(ph) from Storrs, Connecticut. I was just wondering if you could speak to the fact that we're getting a lot more Spanish immigrants and the influx of Spanish speaking people, and how that might be change the way we speak here in the U.S?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Oh, yeah. I wonder, can we think of any Spanish words that have sort of entered into common parlance, more lately since the influx, I'm trying to think of that…

CONAN: We'll have to comeback with some manyana(ph).

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah, the manyana.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT Jr. Yeah, it was bound to. And Spanish words - I mean, the big enchilada we already had, so in politics. I don't know, I'm trying to think of - can you think of an emerging Spanish term that worked its way in to the language. A lot of new restaurants, I know that.

Mr. MCVALE: Oh, I'm not sure about that. I was wondering if you have any generalizations for where we're going or if there's going to be a broad way to...

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Well, the great thing about English and especially American English is how many influences it has had. And how many influence it has absorbed and made use of. You know, everything from Yiddish to Shoshoni(ph) has been added words, to English or changed English words. And, they're in fact, English has three times more words than any other language. So it's always been - it's a great example of E Pluribus Unum . I don't how many they're left anymore, but the language is.

CONAN: Now, let's get to Michael(ph) on the line. Michael with us from San Francisco.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Roy, it's a great pleasure to get a chance to talk with you.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Good. How are you doing now?

MICHAEL: I had a couple of - well a unique one comes from Hebrew and the word is bakbuk which is the word for bottle. But if you think about an old bottle pouring out water or wine in it that's the sound it makes.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Oh, yeah, bakbuk, bakbuk. Yeah....

MICHAEL: Back and forth, bakbuk, bakbuk, bakbuk.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Oh, yeah,yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: And on the kind of three-word sentence is a New Yorkism where they love to merge, three words into one word. Didyaeatyet?

CONAN: Didyaeatyet. Yeah

Mr. BLOUNT JR: We were talking about ...

MICHAEL: For the more famous one, forget about it.

CONAN: Mentioned that earlier.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Forget about it.

MICHAEL: I wish I could claim that this was original. In English, we have shower. Right you turn on the water and you have ssh, and you get in..

Mr. BLOUNT JR: (unintelligible).

MICHAEL: And it's too hot and you say ow, ow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: But that's the famous Mel Brook's piece.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Oh, yeah.

MICHAEL: Piece yeah.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah. George Carlin talks a lot about words too. Somebody says, I'll be back in 15 minutes, you think they will. But when they say, I'll be back in 20 minutes you think there's no telling how...

CONAN: How long it's going to be, that's right.

MICHAEL: Well Hebrews got another one. They have a word rega which is literally undefined unit of time.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Well, yeah.

MICHAEL: Rock is only. Oh, they say rak rega which could mean by seconds or you know, a year and a half.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email that we have from Ryan in Virginia. My favorite word is ethereal. Does Roy know the background of this lofty adjective?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Ethereal, well, there's the ether you know. I don't know what the entomology exactly is the but ether is what we are talking out into right now.

CONAN: Our radio waves are spreading through the ether.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Through the ether. Now, why people then apply that to the stuff that used to put people to sleep. I don't know why - maybe - I don't know, I'd have to look that up.

CONAN: I think it's Greek.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Well, I think it's probably is Greek, yeah. But what it meant in Greek originally I don't know - probably air. And ethereal of course is ari(ph) in substantial.

CONAN: We just got a note from our producers, Hasta la vista.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Hasta la vista yeah, there you go. But that was Clint Eastwood is not from Mexico. I don't think.

CONAN: Let's get Rock on the line. Rock from Payson, Arizona.

ROCK (Caller): Hello, Neal and Roy.



ROCK: Enjoyed listening to both of you for many years.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

ROCK: Enjoy both of your humorous attitudes too. I was telling your screener that I ended up after graduating from school, from college and that with an English minor and art major discovering how deficit my vocabulary was, so I picked up a book name "Word Power Made Easy" threw it in my fishing tackle box. And after going through it about four times, it entranced me so much with Greek, Latin and prefixes and suffixes and all that, that I started teaching at the desk to my students with flash cards and in spite of themselves. They became very astute students of etymology.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Oh, good for you. Did you catch any fish?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROCK: Well, yeah. Yeah. This was a good thing because they - in the slow times it really help me. Roy, what was the name of that book of yours again?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: "Alphabet Juice". And thank you for asking.

ROCK: "Alphabet Juice."

Mr. BLOUNT JR: "Alphabet Juice." You want me to - hear a quote from Mark Twain which sort of talks about the power of words. " A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper, the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual and electrically prompt." I like that - it's just so wonderful - electrically prompt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: We got all sorts of electrically prompt media now. But the words - word on a page, can be electrically prompt too.

ROCK: Well, I think what I enjoy so much about you and that is you're down home sense of humor. You take a very lofty subject which is basically a lot of Greek and Latin. And you bring it down to the everyday - every man's level.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: May be I should run for something. But...

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This would be the time to announce. Rock, thanks very much for the call.

ROCK: Thank you, gentlemen.

CONAN: Here's an email from Bob in Madison, Connecticut. My wife cannot stand the word - the sound of the word moist. When I was told that co-worker had a word, she hated but wouldn't say what it was. I said, is it moist? I thought she was going to throw up right there on the sidewalk. Why do people has a strong reactions to certain words?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Moist is a very sonickey word. I mean, you hear a lot of moisture in there. You're going to - I don't want to name the sort of moisture there is, but some people just don't like to think about what goes on as I say in their mouth.

CONAN: And it's interesting, that word comes up in your - you take issue with the phrase dry humor.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Oh, yeah, because humor originally it's the same root as humid and it had to do with fluids and so. Well, people just often say he's got that dry humor.

CONAN: Dry humor, yeah.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Dry humor. If - I like it to be a little - I'm not going to say moist but I like for humor to be a little juicy.

CONAN: Let's get Julie on the line, Julie with us from Cincinnati in Ohio.

JULIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JULIE: I just wanted to call when you were talking about the Russian word for a pig sound and it's - you say it like this - cloo, cloo.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Cloo, cloo. Well.

JULIE: Yeah, it's like - it's kind of like your going to spit. Like you're clearing your throat and you add like a loo behind it because my husband is Russian, and I hear this sound sometimes. We were talking about it.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Right.

CONAN: And how the Russian pigs learn this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: I think most things in German - I mean, in Russian sound like that. I don't think there's a lot of that element of - in the back of the mouth. And I appreciate that because I think it sounds like a pig, I don't know, maybe not. But oink and oink, so and grunt works for me.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. Thanks very much...

JULIE: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks call, Julie. Let's get somebody here on the microphone at the Newseum.

MARK (Audience): Mark Aikland(ph), Washington D.C.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

MARK: Mr. Blount, do you believe that email and texting are impairing the language?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Well, they're like everything else. They're impairing, adding things too, but yeah, I think that people who are in such a hurry to text and email that they leave things out. I saw the other day on the which is a resource I recommend. An interesting thing online, but somebody said that people are now, the word awesome has just been horribly overused. And now, somebody said that people instead of texting awesome, they are texting just A,W,E,S - just awes. And that really cuts awesome down to size.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Pay no attention to that word behind the curtain.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

CONAN: Here's an email. We have - this is Erica from Phoenix, Arizona. I find myself discombobulated by today's program.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah. That's a good word I think.

CONAN: That's a good one. Two word sentence from Tom in St. Louis from "War and Peace." Drops dripped.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Drops dripped. From "War and Peace" of course in Russian. I don't know - that would probably be more like. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: My favorite word of this political season writes Matt in Cyprus, Texas is bloviate it is almost an onomatopoeia.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah. It is. I think, yeah. It captures somehow the false expansiveness of empty hot air language.

CONAN: And this is from Amy in Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania. That's a pretty good word too. My husband and I love the word obsequious. It is just so great so when we are describing someone as having been obsequious. We say the obsequity(ph) of the person was beyond belief, for example. Words are great and so much fun to play with our kids are starting to play with words too, which can make the dinner table a very fun placed to be.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah, obsequious. You get seek in there and you kind of sneaking a seek in there. .

CONAN: Let's get Favel(ph) on the line. Favel with us from Laramee in Wyoming.

FAVEL (Caller): Hi there, everybody. A years ago when I worked for the Wyoming Geological Survey, one of our main guys would always come in to this (unintelligible) and say let's go have lunch. His way of saying it was a single a word 'squeak'.

CONAN: Squek, yeah.

FAVEL: Like S-Q-U-E-A-K.

CONAN: Squeak yeah, yeah.

FAVEL: Let's go squeak. And by the way, this gentleman's name on the level was is Forest Roop. That's the man's name, Forest Roop.

CONAN: Well, it's nice.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: And what he is doing now?

FAVEL: Well, I have no idea. It's been years since I worked under a great geologist...

CONAN: Squeak.

FAVEL: Dan Miller. And I have no idea where Forest is or the trees for that matter.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Always thought the word Wyoming should be a gerund, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: They should be a word - or verb to wyom.

FAVEL: I had no idea...

CONAN: Or it's part of a split infinitive to blank Wyoming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FAVEL: I'm not even going to go there. I have a question for you, Roy.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah.

FAVEL: Should word - is it ever even safe to - should words ever be taken literally?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Should words ever be taken literally? Well, that's kind of a thought.

FAVEL: Yeah.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: You mean, well, you can be too literal about words but that's our - you know, if you say, I would like for words to be taken as literally as possible. I like people to try to use words as literally as possible. And one word I like for people to use literally is the word literally, which I so often used to mean figuratively. I literally fell through the forward, you know, it's just not true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FAVEL: Well, a final thing from me, sir, on a romantic note. The young lady earlier who talked about how much she just treasured and enjoy the word to be deciduous as applied to a human instead of to a tree. My dear sweet girlfriend, she loves the word verdant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FAVEL: Verdant. Now, verdant doesn't necessarily mean for her verdant and now for me as well is a very sensuous word. I think because of its sound.

CONAN: Verdant.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Uh huh. It's sound. Would you name someone verdant? I don't know. It's well...


Mr. BLOUNT JR: If it works for you two. I'm happy for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Wasn't he a friend of President Clinton's, Vernon Jordan?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Vernon Jordan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Favel, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

FAVEL: My pleasure. Have a great evening. Thanks. Bye.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Sort of like hydrant of something.. I don't know.

CONAN: We're talking with Roy Blount Jr. about his new book "Alphabet Juice." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And we have someone at the microphone here at the Newseum.

JANA (Audience): Hi. I'm Jana(ph) from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and I wanted to know if you think it is inherently pretentious to use words that are bigger than commonly used?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Well, I don't know how would you - how big would that be do you think?

JANA: Depends on the circle sometimes. Pretentious is a big word and...

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Right. There you go. Yeah.

JANA: Sometimes obscure...

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Yeah.

JANA: Is too big for the common crowd.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Well, I don't think that the length of a word is necessarily a sign of its pretentiousness. You know, discombobulate is kind of a fun word and it's kind of long. It's pretentious use of words that don't mean anything that's for sure, and a lot of people do. I think that people probably don't take enough risks in politics and you're right these days people don't, you know, people are so afraid of - the only think anybody remembers anymore is gas.

And I think that people don't try to use sort of strong tangy words in politics very much. I noticed yesterday that - or in the New York Times today, Barack Obama used the word 'ain't' he said I want to get to try he said. I don't think it's right in fact it ain't right and that - ain't is a great old word. It's not pretentious and it's used to be standard back in 18th century. And it works a lot better, I mean in song titles for instance, "It Isn't Necessarily So" or "That Isn't Me Babe" or "Am not misbehaving" just doesn't work. So, but I think you can have a lot of fun with words and that pretentiousness can be fun too. So, I don't rule out pretension as long you work in some short words with it.

CONAN: And I'll be happy to use that word ain't as long as my third grade English teacher is nowhere in the room, and not near a piece of the chalk. Here's an email from Allison(ph) in Cincinnati. My daughter had some language issues since she's a small child and frequently get words and mixed up, she invented a few of her own, which I love. A remembery which I thought of it as a very logical contraction of memory and remember and eleventeen, which come of course after 10.

MR. BLOUNT JR.: Yeah, eleventeen. The derivation of the word eleven by the way is really cool and I can't quite remember what it is. But it's something. I'm not even going to go into it. But it really look up 11 sometime. Words like that that you take for granted. Often just sort of jump up at you when you find out what - where they, how they were cobbled together, you know.

CONAN: Let's get Mary on the line. And Mary is calling us from Syracuse in New York.

MARY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

MARY: My word is I love the word hebetudinous.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: That's beauty or something? Hibatude. What's hibatude?

MARY: Hibatudeness(ph). It's like stupid.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Oh, yeah.

MARY: It's like a long way of saying stupid.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Oh. I didn't know that. Hibatudeness.

MARY: It was on "Gilligan's Island" where I first heard about...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Oh, well.

MARY: Yes. I was seven-years-old.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: They didn't have a dictionary at Gilligan's Island. I don't think, but...

MARY: No. Just the professor.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: The professor made that one up .

CONAN: Yeah. Well, it's similar to Bugs Bunny's favorite expression "What a maroon?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much.

MARY: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mary. And we're not going to have time to get him on the air. But, what's your favorite word asks Mark in Hartford, Connecticut that's change its meaning?

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Favorite word that has changed its meaning. Well, people ask me I have a stock answer to what's my favorite word which is chicken. But the word which has changed, well, you know, an example of a word that has changed its meaning because of the sound of it is 'demeaning.' It used to be that to demean yourself was to just sort of behave yourself and it's the same root as the word demeanor. But just cause 'mean' was in there which means, you know, people nowadays means it's to sell yourself short or to allow yourself to be.

CONAN: Run for political office.

Mr. BLOUNT JR: Run for political office that's an example of the sound of words but that's not certainly not my favorite word. I like words that - I try to - I hope words hold their own and their own mean.

CONAN: We're going to ask Roy Blount Junior to stay with us because coming up, Murray Horwitz joins us for a special movie tribute to a most maligned profession.

(Soundbite of movie "The Front Page")

Mr. WALTER MATTHAU: (As Walter Burns/Otto Fishbine) Marry an undertaker. Marry a blackjack dealer. Marry a pickpocket but never marry a newspaperman.

CONAN: Walter Matthau from one of the many movie versions of "The Front Page." That's right. It's all about journalism movies when we come back. Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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