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Roy Blount Jr. is a Southern humorist and frequent panelist on NPR's weekly news quiz show, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. His 21st book, Alphabet Juice, examines the energies, gists, roots, and pips of sonicky words from A to Z. Mother Jones spoke with Blount about Obama's word choices, the best phrases to come out of the recession, and the pros and cons of keeping a Southern accent. Listen to the interview as a podcast, or read a condensed version of the transcript below.
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Mother Jones: You grew up in Georgia and you have this wonderful Southern accent, which is somewhat rare on public radio these days. Did anyone ever ask you to get rid of your accent, and if so what happened?
Roy Blount Jr. Lots of people have expressed consternation that I haven't gotten rid of it, but I just never saw any reason to lose the flavor that I grew up with. I enjoy saying some things with a Southern accent. But I've modulated it some over the years. I used to say "fangers." And I've found that if you say, "I believe you've put your fanger on the problem here," nobody believes you. So you have to say "finger." But I think "ohn" sounds better than "on." You want to say, "Right on"? I don't think so. Certainly people have said a lot of deeply unfortunate and stupid things in Southern accents, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the accent itself.
MJ: Speaking of accents and language, you've written 21 books, and your most recent, Alphabet Juice is a...glossographia?
RB: Yeah, my ancestor Thomas Blount wrote a book called Blount's Glossographia back in the 17th century, and his book was the first English dictionary that got into etymology at all. My book tells anecdotes and wanders around and dwells upon the sounds of words and rises upon the considerable amount of scholarship that has been done since the 17th century.
I always wanted to do a wordbook, but I never really had a theme. Then I read that linguisticians decreed that the relationship between words and their meaning is arbitrary and that got my back up and gave me a sort of thread to keep running through all these definitions. But mainly I just wanted an excuse to write about words. I'm going to do a sequel. Maybe I'll call it Alphabetter Juice.
MJ: Do you miss the linguistic oddities of Bush's speech?
RB: No! I don't. I didn't like them when I first heard them and I don't want to hear any more of them. I like linguistic eccentricity that has a point to it and that explores the possibilities of speech, but Bushisms were ways of not saying anything, or ways of saying something that he didn't really mean to say, and it was embarrassing to listen to. Obama is certainly a lot more interesting to listen to. I mean, Obama's the most thoughtful-sounding president I can remember. He seems to be saying what he wants to say, and that is a great relief. Even though he's gotten a lot more solemn since he's gotten elected, and I can't blame him. He always sounds like he's thinking about what he's saying while he's saying it, and that's a rare thing in politicians. We had him on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me one time, back before he had declared for the presidency when he was a little more willing to be loose, and he mentioned that his first day in the Senate he found that every senator had a little desk, and that all the senators over the centuries had carved their names into their desks. And I said, "Are you supposed to do that?" And he said, "Well, as the only African American member of the Senate I thought I might spraypaint my name." Tag it, as it were. So, I think he's got a great sense of humor, but mainly he has a great thinking presence, which is uncommon. It's hard to imagine being able to do, think over answers and deliver them on television. If I were president I would constantly be spluttering.
MJ: Is it harder to be a humorist under a thoughtful, articulate president?
RB: Well, I've never thought it was necessary to make fun of people—you can find fun in people without necessarily mocking them. Yes, it was a lot easier to make fun of Bush, but it was sort of like shooting fish in a barrel and it didn't really feel all that good because it was so easy to do. I would much rather live under a thoughtful president. Even if it makes it harder to be funny about politics, it makes it more interesting to be funny about politics.
MJ: You're a regular panelist on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, and one of the things I really love about the show is how much fun you all sound like you're having. Are you having fun, or do you just fake it really well?
RB: They make us sound like that. Every time we sound like we're not having fun they have this guy there who goes along and pings our ear. You know how you flip an ear with your finger like that?
No, we have a great time. Everybody gets along and likes each other. There's constant pressure to think of something to say, which is sort of like playing basketball. Sometimes you can sort of pass off to another person, say something that's not very funny but maybe someone else will pick up from it. You know, get an assist, as in basketball. We used to do it from all different locations, scattered all over the country. We were all on telephone lines. And we were able to do it then, actually. It was interesting how the timing developed. I'm on this antiquated phone system up here in Massachusetts and they put in special phone lines so I could do it from my house and in my underwear, but because the phone system was so antiquated here I was on a delay. So I was hearing things about two seconds after they were said, which meant I had to start talking before I knew what I was going to say in order to get anything in edgewise. It worked, but it's more fun to get together in person and have an audience.
MJ: Is there one word or phrase out of this recession that you particularly like?
RB: Ooh. Madoff's pun is appropriate. "Stimulus package" has a charge to it, sounds like the kind of thing you'd be encouraged to order for yourself online. "A new marvelous stimulus package has been developed for men over 45." "Bailout" sounds a little spicy to me, also a little desperate, but that's all we have at the moment.
MJ: One last question. Do you Twitter?
RB: No, I do not Twitter. I don't want to Twitter, and I don't see any point in Twittering. The last thing I want to do is tell people what I'm doing at the moment because I'm probably not doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm probably wandering around staring off into space thinking about something to do or to say.
It's not a good sound, is it? Twitter. If it were worth doing, there would be a better word for it. Let's just leave it at that.
Laura McClure is the multimedia editor of Mother Jones.