Alphabet Juice: 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

Alphabet Juice: 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

by Roy Blount Jr.

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Overview

"If everybody's first English teacher were Roy Blount Jr., we might still be trillions in debt, but we would be so deeply in love with words and their magic . . . that we'd hardly notice." —Chris Tucker, The Dallas Morning News

After forty years of making a living using words in every medium except greeting cards, Roy Blount Jr. still can't get over his ABCs. In Alphabet Juice, he celebrates the juju, the crackle, the sonic and kinetic energies, of letters and their combinations. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, but he is not out to prescribe proper English. His passion is for questions such as these: Did you know that both mammal and matter derive from baby talk? Have you noticed how wince makes you wince?

Three and a half centuries ago, Thomas Blount produced his Glossographia, the first dictionary to explore derivations of English words. This Blount's Glossographia takes that pursuit to new levels. From sources as venerable as the OED and as fresh as Urbandictionary.com, and especially from the author's own wide ranging experience, Alphabet Juice derives an organic take on language that is unlike, and more fun than, any other.

"Amusing, bemusing, and smart as hell." —Daniel Okrent, Fortune

"Danced in Blount's arms, English swings smartly." —Jack Shafer, The New York Times Book Review

"Gracefully erudite and joyous." —Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Sunday Globe

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374532048
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/29/2009
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 806,788
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty previous books, covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking. He is a regular panelist on NPR's Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! and is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. Born in Indianapolis and raised in Decatur, Georgia, Blount now lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, the painter Joan Griswold.

Read an Excerpt

According to scholars of linguistics, the relation between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. In proof, they point to pigs. Steven Pinker, in Words and Rules, observes that pigs go oink oink in English, nøff nøff in Norwegian, and in Russian chrjo chrjo. That may look arbitrary. As if it went something like this:

English committee member #1
What’ll we put down for pig noise?

Member #2 (whose motives are unclear)
Let’s name it for my uncle Oink.

Member #3
No, we need to capture more of that grunh, grunh . . .

(Weary groan arises.)

Member #4
In Russia . . .
(He or she is shouted down.)

Committee chairman
People. We have to move on.

Have you ever tried to spell any of the various sounds that pigs make? It isn’t easy. It’s damn well worth trying, but eventually you have to settle on something close. (Chickens being more articulate, you’ll find their noises to be pretty similar the world round. Baby chicks go peep peep in English, pío pío in Spanish, piyo piyo in Japanese.)

And I’m not sure Pinker is playing fair with that chrjo. It’s not Russian letters. How am I supposed to know how Russian people or pigs pronounce it? Fortunately, by Googling "Russian pigs go," I have obtained the input of an online chatperson (at ask.metafilter.com) named "MrAnonymous," who sounds like he knows what he is talking about:

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 loogie. (Don’t try and pronounce the K, just flem up the H.)

That, although it should be "try to pronounce" and phlegm, is not bad. Over the years and around the world, generation building upon generation, people have put much mimetic effort into the spelling of pig utterance.

For that matter, grunt works for me, and I resent any insinuation that I have been programmed by random convention. Dictionaries in their grudging way call grunt "probably imitative." The word is a distinct refinement, or counterrefinement, of the Old English grunettan, and although the parallel Greek gry, in comparison, looks less than fully swinish, you can see the resemblance. The French for "to grunt" is grogner. You know what the French for the growl of a car is? Vroum!

That car is running on alphabet juice. So, less obviously, are spice and tang and strength (do you think that word fits its meaning no better than would, say, delicacy?) and, excuse me, sphincter, which shares a root, incidentally, with the Sphinx.

Marshall McLuhan, whom we celebrate for coming up with such memes as "the global village" and "the medium is the message," played fast and loose with the roots of words, according to his biographer, Philip Marchand: he "pored over etymologies in the OED as if they were mystic runes," and irritated colleagues at Cambridge by making up fanciful derivations to support his theories. I prefer a firmer grip on etymology—"the wheel-ruts of modern English," as etymonline.com puts it.

So I am not going to think of the mysterious statue and say sph- is soft (face of a woman, and we may think of sphagnum moss), the middle part is retentive-sounding, and the x is for unknown. I am going to consult several reliable lexicographical sources, and report to you that the original Sphinx, the monster whose riddle Oedipus solved, was named by the Greeks from their verb sphingein, to squeeze, because she strangled her victims. Pronouncing sphincter, or squeeze, constricts the throat.

Oddly enough, McLuhan did his Ph.D. dissertation on Thomas Nashe, who described a comely maid as "fat and plum every part of her as a plover, a skin as slick and soft as the back of a swan, it doth me good when

I remember her. Like a birde she tript on the ground, and bare out her belly as majestical as an Estrich." (In one or two places I have slightly modernized Nashe’s Elizabethan spelling, but I wouldn’t touch Estrich. Another old version of ostrich was Austridge. The roots go back, via the Latin avis struthio, to the Greek strouthokamelos, camel-sparrow.)

I say "oddly enough" because McLuhan, according to Marchand, "was never interested in the ‘music of words.’" In Understanding Media, McLuhan maintained that the phonetic alphabet—"in which semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds"—had alienated people from the body. The ink had hardly dried on that notion when the Free Speech Movement broke out at Berkeley, and pretty soon people were running naked and letting their hair grow wild.

Maybe many of them were trying to break away from the alphabet, but I wasn’t. To me, letters have always been a robust medium of sublimation. I don’t remember what I was like before I learned my ABC’s, but for as long as I can remember I have made them with my fingers and felt them in my bones. Where are we, at the moment? We’re in the midst of a bunch of letters, and if you’re like me, you feel like a pig in mud.

What a great word mud is. And muddle, and muffle, and mumble . . .

You know the expression "Mum’s the word." The word mum is a representation of lips pressed together. Since it’s not merely a sound, mmmm, but a word, to say it we have to move our lips. For the separator we choose that utterly unintellectual (though it’s what we say when trying to think) vowel sound uh, which thrusts at the heart of push and shove and grunt and love.

The great majority of languages start the word for "mother" with an m sound. The word mammal comes from the mammary gland. Which comes from baby talk: mama. To sound like a grownup, we refine mama into mother; the Romans made it mater, from which: matter. And matrix. Our word for the kind of animal we are, and our word for the stuff that everything is made of, and our word for a big cult movie all derive from baby talk.

What are we saying when we say mmmm? We are saying yummy. In the pronunciation of which we move our lips the way nursing babies move theirs. The fact that we can spell something that fundamental, and connect it however tenuously to mellifluous and manna and milk and me (see M), strikes me as marvelous. You know the expression "a magic spell"—

Here the scholar cries, Aha! (See H.)

And the scholar has a point. I’m not here to play tricks (see abracadabra), but to find traction. I am saying arbitrary, schmabitrary. Linguisticians will concede me onomatopoeia: snap, crackle, pop, and so on. But they marginalize these words by throwing up the inconstancy of pig sounds, and then they get on with their theories. Steven Pinker does allow that some people might channel their magical thinking into "sound symbolism (words such as sneer, cantankerous, and mellifluous that naturally call to mind the things they mean)."

As it happens, scrutiny of the term symbolic in that sense has led me to find a discrepancy in the greatest lexicographical work in English, the Oxford English Dictionary, but I won’t dwell on that (see wh-). I will say that theorizing stands and falls on its examples. Here is Pinker:

Sound symbolism, for its part, was no friend of the American woman in the throes of labor who overheard what struck her as the most beautiful word in the English language and named her newborn daughter Meconium, the medical word for fetal excrement.

This has the ring of an urban legend, a tendentious one, like Ronald Reagan’s mink-coated woman stepping from a limousine to claim her welfare check. If there was a woman who gave her baby girl such a name, she had a highly idiosyncratic ear. (Of the thousand most common female names according to the 1990 census, Miriam was the only one ending in m, and it was 285th.) Salmonella, maybe, or Campho-Phenique, but Meconium? No. This mother—I will stop short of saying that linguisticians conjured her up, consciously or unconsciously, to reinforce their denial of so much evidence of the senses, but I will say that this mother is not, in this respect, a good example.

The Japanese, I am told, have two different words for two different kinds of imitative language: giseigo, mimic-voice-language, for instance potsu-potsu, rainfall of medium force; and gitiago, mimic-condition-language, for instance pittari, to fit exactly. Neither of those examples may seem intuitive to English speakers, but every language has its deep aesthetic network of sonic correspondences. The very consistency of English is inconsistent—don’t expect remember to be the opposite of dismember, or pitch, because its vowel sound is like the first one in sphincter, to betoken a withered peach. But all language, at some level, is body language. (Or anyway, all English is body English. See the quote from Allen Tate at spin.) Who wants a tongue to be cut-and-dried?

It beats me why any writer would want to minimize the connection between high-fiber words (squelch, for instance, or wobble or sniffle [see -le], or the flinch and wince family, or the -udge’s, or prestidigitation) and the bodily maneuvers from which they emanate and those they evoke. But I don’t claim to be a scientist. Science naturally abhors what it can’t universalize. For many years, the dominant theory in the science of linguistics has been Noam Chomsky’s, that all human language is made possible by a universal, recursive (that is to say, allowing of insertions such as this one) grammar, hardwired in our genes.

Now hardwired, objectively, refers to metal drawn out into threads. (Hard has a harder sound than soft, and what a fine word wire is: thin— wiry—and sonically drawn out, like its French counterpart, fil. The German Draht is more broadly evocative of the drawing out.) But okay, chromosomes are threads. (And what a kinesthetic word thread is. It’s one of several palpably transmissive thr- words: through, thorough, thrill, throat, throw, thrum, and throb.) Chromosomes are not exactly laid end to end, as I understand them, but never mind, mental activity is demonstrably electric (see electricity/chewing tobacco). But what travels through the wires? What force through the green fuse?

Alphabet juice. The quirky but venerable squiggles which through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth. If you handle them right. The fact that I have made a living for forty years selling combinations of letters on the open market, in every medium, print or electronic, except greeting cards, does not entitle me to tell you how to write or talk. I do hope you realize that every time you use disinterested to mean uninterested, an angel dies, and every time you write very unique, or "We will hire whomever is more qualified," thousands of literate people lose yet another little smidgen of hope. And please promise me you will never lose your grip on the subjunctive to the extent that someone did in this sentence from USA Today: "If Ramirez stayed in Cleveland, the Indians may not be seven victories shy of their first World Series title since 1948."

"If Ramirez had stayed," I cry aloud. "The Indians might not be! Damn! Damn! Damn!"

I hope this book will be useful to anyone who wants to write better, including me. I have written some of the clumsiest, most clogged-yetvagrant, hobbledehoyish, hitch-slipping sentences ever conceived by the human mind. On the radio I can sometimes talk spontaneously to tolerable effect, with the help of voice tone and adrenaline; but almost nothing that pops into my head flows when I set it down in letters. (That’s about the ninth time I have written that unremarkable sentence, a simple statement of fact, and even now I’m not sure that there is anything to be said for the kind of semi-sprung rhythm that has arisen in "head flows.") Fortunately, I enjoy fooling with letters, moving them around, going back over them, over and over, screaming . . . The terrible thing about writing is also the great thing about it: you can keep on changing it. "We say that we perfect diction," wrote Wallace Stevens. "We simply grow tired." (See simply.) But it’s a good tired. That’s an interesting expression: a good tired.

Do we adapt any other past participle to such purpose? I’m stumped. But it’s a good stumped.

The franchise I claim is not prescriptive, but over the counter. Quality over the counter. People who mistreat English, or who, with no doubt the purest intentions, discount Sprachgefühl (see kinesthesia), are messing with the stuff I trade in. If the ABC’s lose their savor, I will be hardpressed to pass along, not to mention get paid for passing along, such an intimate pleasure as I felt while listening to NPR’s Fresh Air not long ago. The country singer Don Walser, now deceased, was being interviewed by Terry Gross. She asked him about his yodeling.

He said he did two different yodels, a cowboy yodel and a swish yodel.

A what? Walser was a big hearty Texan who didn’t seem like the sort of performer who would get off on mocking sissy airs. Anyway, yodeling very nearly transcends gender. Even if you wanted to, how would you make a yodel sound nelly?

Then I realized: "Swiss yodel." When the soft s and the y-as-in-yummy glide together they make the sound that for some reason we spell sh-:

Oh how I wish you

Would wish I would kiss you.

I would be the last person to argue that the sounds of our letters are thoroughly explicable. (Did you know that Hells Angels refer to themselves as "AJ" because it sounds so much like "HA"?) They are a wonder on the tongue. And a tongue—although Robert Benchley called it "that awful-looking thing right back of your teeth"—is what a language is.

No doubt it would be superficial to liken the universal grammar theory to a virtual program wherein all the steps of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire are reduced to a flow chart, with no attention to Fred’s ears or the ineffable things Ginger does with her shoulders. But I get no kick from genetics. For depth I prefer digging back to eldritch-grungy roots, Proto-Indo-European (PIE) or Semitic: wegh-, to go; reub-, to snatch; hsp, to be insolent.

In this I am motivated by a distant ancestor. In 1656, Thomas Blount produced the first English dictionary to go into the origins of words: Glossographia, or, a dictionary interpreting all such hard words, of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue. In the New York Public Library I have turned the actual uncrumbling seventeenth-century pages of the fifth edition of Blount’s Glossographia:

Coffa or Cauphe, a kind of drink among the Turks and Persians (and of late introduced among us) which is black, thick and bitter, destrained from berries of that nature, and name, thought good and very wholesome: they say it expels melancholy, purges choler . . .

Alphabet Juice is my glossographia. Juice as in au jus, juju, power, liquor, electricity. (Loose words and clauses left lying around are like loose live wires—they’ll short-circuit, burn out, disempower your lights.) As in influence; as in squeezin’s; as in, the other day I saw a woman walking down the street wearing some highly low-cut shorts. On her hourglass figure, the top of those shorts was at about, I would say (not a snap judgment), twenty minutes. Just below that part of the back where some people—she, for instance—have dimples was where her waistband cut across; and just below the waistband, in two-inch letters, was an inspired, if vulgar, brand name: Juicy. (See zaftig.)

Note: When a word or phrase appears in boldface, it is the subject of a separate alphabetical entry, which you might want to check out. (In boldface italic, it is under consideration qua word or phrase as opposed to topic.) If you read this book the way I would read it and the way I’ve written it, you will wear it out, thumbing back and forth, without ever being sure you’ve read it all.

Abbreviations of reference books frequently cited:

AHD: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Chambers: Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

OAD: New Oxford American Dictionary

OED: Oxford English Dictionary

RHU: Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

WIII: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged

Excerpted from Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr.
Copyright © 2008 by Roy Blount Jr.
Published in September 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Par 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
CNT78 More than 1 year ago
What a great book. It is like stepping inside Roy Blount Jr.'s head and watching his brain work. The man has an amazing respect for words and the English language. Words have meaning and need to be used properly if they are to convey communication. Roy certainly discusses the meaning and proper use of words and phrases, but more enjoyably, he discusses the sonic essence of words and letters and phrases. He talks of pips and pops and fits and stops. The slither and hiss of an s. How stuff is just fun to say, and how the x helps give fix its meaning. Any word could have been arbitrarily used to mean "place securely; make firm". We could say whimsical, or flabajabba, but we don't. We say fix, because it just sounds right. Sure, there is an etymological heritage to fix getting its current meaning, but when it comes down to it, fix just sounds good. Fix is, as he puts it, "sonicky", and that is what the book is about. Not so much how to use words, but reminding us to recognize how words should be used and to enjoy them. There is 'juice' in the alphabet. The book is really great fun to read, if you enjoy words. It has also made me self-conscious of how I misuse words and have mediocre writing skills. I have gained a greater appreciation for those that can write well.
MinnesotaReader More than 1 year ago
Humorist/Wordsmith Roy Blount Jr. has collated hundreds of words and phrases into a witty, captivating book. Arranged in alphabetical order, each entertaining entry features different aspects, such as pronunciations, origins, syllables, roots, spellings, variations, vowel sounds, evolutions or translations. He emphasizes the feel of the words in our mouth as we say them. Quotes from movies, books and people are engaging additions. Many fascinating facts, trivia and wonderful anecdotes enhance the entries. Mr. Blount includes brilliant commentary which is laugh-out-loud funny. Several unusual dictionaries are referred to, and can be used for further enrichment. I really enjoyed reading this clever, well-written book. It was filled with valuable information about the writing process. The most important lesson I learned was to "rely on strong nouns and verbs, not layers of adjectives and adverbs". I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this compelling book.
mcandre on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'll admit it, I bought this book for the cover and the long title. The entries are hit and miss. My favorite one is the letter S. I won't spoil it.
tinLizzy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great read for word nerds! It's not exactly a sequential-read sort of read - I found it hard to "just read" it. But what it IS (at least for how my brain works) is a grazing book - and a fantastic means for spring-boarding off into topics you'd never known you wanted to, or maybe never even knew about to begin with. Case in point - wasn't familiar with Oliver Goldman, but Blount's passage on Goody Two Shoes for whatever reason spawned a sudden interest in Goldman - leading me to run off and read the Vicar of Wakefield. Seriously a cool book, and well Roy Blount Jr is just a hell of a funny witty guy. Probably time for me to pick up Alphabet Juice again and carry on with grazing my way through it!
bohemima on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a serendipitous find at the library. Something of a cross betweeen Strunk and White's Elements of Style and a work on word history, this is a most entertaining jaunt. Many jokes illustrate the finer points of instruction and lots of oddball trivia will attract word buffs. Recommended for anyone interested in the English language.
hugh_ashton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really wasn't sure what this book was meant to be. Roy Blount is obviously in love with words and their sounds ¿ but the problem is that there are so many varieties of English (not just UK English and the US derivation, but the Englishes of other nations, and dialects and accents within those nations) that any judgement on words based on their pronunciation is bound to be based towards "the way I say it". His criticisms of the common abuse of words are ones I generally agree with, but I felt this was somewhat of a ragbag of a book, without any structure or form, and the alphabetical listing was an attempt to cover that lack. There was also a lot of "me" in the book, which annoyed me ¿ is this My Life, or a book about language, or what? I'm glad I was given this book ¿ I wouldn't have bought it.
datrappert on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am inclined to like books like this and inclined to like Roy Blount, but after less than an hour of reading, I came upon two things that are just so wrong it makes me want to scream.1) He says Sir Thomas More was hanged. Hanged? He was beheaded, of course, as anyone (doesn't FSG have editors?) should know.2) In his discussion of the word "tally", he says a tallyman is someone who sells merchandise on credit. This may be true, but then he quotes the line from Day-O as sung by Harry Belafonte: Come Mr. Tallyman, tally me banana. In this case, "tally me banana" obviously means count how many bananas I have picked until daylight comes while working on a drink of rum - daylight is here and I want to go home!I'm sure there are scattered pleasures in this book - merely having an entry on tallywhacker is one of them - but for a work of this type, I have to have some trust that the author knows what he's talking about.Sorry, Roy.
jsoos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An entertaining volume that considers different aspects of words. Sometimes its the word origin, sometimes usage, othertimes it ist the sound ("sonicky") and feeling of a word. Quite a bit of rambling, and nothing consistent (other than the alphabetical order of the book). Not quite a reference volume and not quite a humor volume - but there are some great stories/examples (I love the mixed metaphor) particularly from his days with Sports Illustrated. - Good for bathroom reading - 5 minutes at a time.
gazzy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Language Bathroom Reader. Fun ramblings on Language, but what we have is a publishing of the authors random notes on the subject, loosely disguised as a compendium having a rational connection.
kaelirenee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For those who enjoy having a little fun with their language. Blount doesn't consider simply the origin of words; there are far better books for that. He considers how the word sounds, how it feels, how it's used. This is a hodgepodge of information, jokes, quotes,and musings. It's best read a little at a time, as it can get grating if read for more than about 20 minutes.
jamespurcell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a non professional "word nerd", I read rather than write, I found this book interesting even fascinating at times. It has a permanent place in my reading area to fill in odd moments between books or in occasional slow patches during books.
briantomlin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Blount is certainly knowledgeable about the English langauge. I can say I learned a great deal from this book; unfortunately, I found his attempts at humor a bit tiresome, and I sometimes felt like he was trying to show off all of his knowledge in one book. Not comprehensive enough to be a useful reference work, and not funny enough to be a language humor book. Still, enjoyable.
bragan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Roy Blount , Jr. goes through the alphabet letter by letter, talking about whatever words and phrases happen to catch his attention. He delves into etymologies, comments on usage, shares snippets of writing (his own and others') that he particularly likes or dislikes, makes jokes, and talks a great deal about the sounds of words and his appreciation for the ones that sound somehow appropriate for their meanings or connotations.I was tremendously enthusiastic about this book at first. I mean, look at the subtitle: "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." How can a language lover resist a description like that? "Wow," I was saying to myself by the time I got through the introduction, "here is someone who indeed knows how to squeeze the juice from language! I can practically taste all those wonderful words on my tongue!" But I quickly started to feel rather disappointed. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's all just a little too random. Or it's due to the fact that Blount's approach feels a bit too fanciful to me at some times and a bit too pedantic at others. Or that he often seems to me to be trying a little too hard to be clever and witty. Maybe it's just that his sense of humor and mine don't entirely line up. It's not that I didn't find any of it enjoyable. It's sometimes quite funny and sometimes genuinely informative, but it just didn't quite deliver on the concentrated linguistic delight it seemed to promise.
debherter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Entertaining and informative.
cjsdg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Three stars for content, one extra for Blount's espièglerie in writing such an idiosyncratic book. No slouch in the word dept, he brushes Chomsky aside, and argues that words in general have a more onomotopaeic quality than the linguists tend to credit them with. He has all kinds of fun chasing down etymologies and occasionally inventing them, rambling on about his favorite words. For Blount is not a theorist of words, but someone who loves words. As he himself notes, this is a sort of dictionary, not meant to be read through, but browsed. And having browsed it unto completion, I am right glad to have done it. Bless your vocabulary, your thinking, your writing, and your funny bone, and read Alphabet Juice.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a gift for a English major still in college along with the 2nd book alpha better juice.
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