Roy Blount Jr. talks of funny athletes, word origins

Humorist Roy Blount Jr. drew a crowd of 170 to the Columbus Public Library’s auditorium on Sunday, and got listeners laughing with tales of athletes and linguistics.

“Not every athlete – I hate to break this to you – is very literary,” Blount told the local folks, some of whom sat in the aisles just to hear him.

He told a story about baseball icon Yogi Berra (www.yogiberra.com), famous for such “Yogi-isms” as “You can observe a lot by watching” and “The future ain’t what it used to be,” who made a visit to a sports talk show on which the host told him they would play a little free-association game: The host would say a name and Berra would reply with the first thing that popped into his head.

Berra agreed, and the host said, “Mickey Mantle.”

“What about him?” Berra replied.

Blount said an interviewer once asked baseball great Pete Rose what books he read. “You know,” Rose replied after pondering the question, “I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book.”

“Pete, you’ve written two,” replied the interviewer.

Blount was in Columbus on Super Bowl Sunday to give a speech and promote his latest book, “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.”

Asked which team he favored in the big game, he replied the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he spent the 1973 season for his book, “About Three Bricks … And the Load Filled Up.”

In an interview conducted via e-mail last week, Blount had predicted the Steelers would score 27 points Sunday. And he was right.

But he was wrong about the Arizona Cardinals. Blount thought they would score only 10 points – not 23.

On the topic of words and their origins, Blount told library listeners that “oink,” the syllable commonly used to represent a pig noise, didn’t come into the American vernacular until World War II. “It makes you wonder what pigs said before,” he said.

He talked about the mechanics of making word sounds, noting that “mammal,” “mammary” and “mama” all come from baby talk. Of Sphinx and sphincter, he said, both sound tight, and take tightening the lips to say, which is fitting because the Sphinx of Greek mythology strangled those could not answer its riddle, and the sphincter of the anus must be tight to serve its function in defecation.

Blount also told a tale of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev speaking at the opening of Olympic games. Checking his text, Brezhnev began by waving his fist and shouting “Oh! Oh! Oh!” But then an aide sidled up to him and said, “That’s the Olympic symbol. The speech starts below.”

Blount's Web site is www.royblountjr.com.