Humorist Roy Blount Jr. is one of America's most prolific authors and a regular panelist on NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. His latest book, Alphabet Juice is quasi dictionary/glossary of the English language, peppered with literary references, cultural oddities and hilarious musings on why we choose the words we do. TIME talked to Blount about the most literary band in America, why he advises investing $20,000 in mass transit and what Sarah Palin might mean for the future of politics.
You're so prolific a writer that it's hard to keep up with your body of work. How many books have you written?
This is the 21st.
Why did you write this book?
It's a tenet of linguistics these days that the relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning is arbitrary and I've always thought that was just crazy. I just think lots of words have physicality. How about the word "wobble"? You think that's arbitrary? When you say the word "wince," you wince. How about that?
It's unfashionable to play around with sounds the way Mark Twain did or Walt Whitman did. Whitman prided himself on being untranslatable, but it seems to me that lots of writers today write for the global market, which means they write a kind of very unshowy, clean prose that doesn't bounce around and have a lot of rambunctious fun.
Do you speak any foreign languages?
I studied French in high school and German in college and I once took a 24-hour Italian crash course. English has by far the most words in it of any other language. Our money might not be worth anything anymore, but the language is. With everything else American going to pot, it's nice to know we've got a wonderfully rich language.
These days, with the economy, people need humor more than ever. Have you got anything to say about the economy to make people smile?
I don't know about making people smile, but I think there's an analogy to be made about connection between money and language. When money gets too far away from actual, physical, real equity and property it gets too abstract and too distantly derived and then suddenly it's not worth anything anymore. And the same is true of language. When we get down into the roots of language, we're dealing with something that's not abstract, but that you can invest in and use. I think money's got to get back down to that too. But, I put $20,000 on my [New York City subway] MetroCard just in case.
Are you still playing with the band, the Rock Bottom Remainders? (Members have included over the years Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan and Matt Groening.)
Yes, I am a part of that band and am proud to be. We're going to play down at the Miami book fair next month.
What instrument do you play?
Well, I don't play an instrument. I'm the least musical member of a highly unmusical band. I do some eccentric dancing. I sing on Wild Thing. I come in with "you moooove me."
Has it gotten harder to be funny as you've gotten older?
You get less flexible or something as you get older. Also, when you're 67, as I am which is hard for me to believe you basically just feel bad all the time. Anybody who claims not to feel bad when they're 67 is lying. But if you felt good all the time, there wouldn't be any point in being funny. There are lots of people who have stayed funny into their senility. If you can just stay funny till you're dotty, that means you've made it home free.
You write a lot about the South and about moving to the North. What do you think about the role of the South in the presidential election?
The South has always stood for the visceral part of the country. Politics has to address more parts of the body than just the brain and the Democrats have to be reminded of that every time. Obama is cool and cerebral, but I've always thought he is a kind of unifier of the bodily parts of the country because he exudes calm and it doesn't seem like a fake calm. He walks along like a person who's not in a hurry and that's sort of Southern. He doesn't have any Southern roots at all, but we had him on Wait, Wait (in 1995) and he was really funny. I tend to think that anybody's who's funny is part Southern.
What do you think about Sarah Palin?
She's just a fascinating phenomenon. She's not Southern at all, certainly, but she's got guns and God and all that. The main thing is that she's just so good-looking. The camera loves her. Let me just say first, I deplore her politics and her world view, but she's the first sexy woman politician and that's kind of refreshing in a way. People call John F. Kennedy sexy and Obama sexy, but women politicians have tended to have to be unsexy, and she might have opened the door for a woman politician who can be sexy and also make good sense.