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Posted: March 24, 2011 6:19 p.m.

Morgan: Reading Conroy an education

Pat Conroy's latest book is one of my favorites. It's entitled "My Reading Life," and in 15 chapters, he recounts all of those individuals, starting with his mother, and teachers of one sort or another who taught him the love of language, the power in words and the ability of books to change lives. Those lessons have defined and driven his life.

It is widely acknowledged that his turn of a phrase is without peer.

Part of the pleasure in reading Conroy is waiting for the next luminous line to appear and stop you in your tracks as you ponder the magic of his phrasing, the metaphors you never dreamed possible. Following his lead, you slip away into the ether for just a breath before continuing on in pursuit of the next transcendent moment.

He writes compellingly, whether it is personal memoir - or personal memoir clothed in see-through robes of fiction.

However, reading Pat Conroy without a dictionary at hand is sometimes akin to trying to discern ancient Greek texts or converse with a waiter in a Paris bistro. It just can't be done.

Honesty compels me to admit that I keep a pen and notepad at bedside where I record unfamiliar, unknown or little used words Conroy throws in my path that stymie my literal progress. Sometimes the context in which a word is used can be enough to convey intent, but I've found that if you don't investigate Conroy's words, you are missing a phase of your education.

He began his career as a teacher, but himself was a student at the knee of his mother, a voracious reader, who taught him the importance of learning new words by looking them up. The two were reading Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," and came upon the word "surfeiting."
"Look it up, Pat," she said. "If we don't know the meaning of the word, we can't understand the sentence."

I myself had to look it up although I thought it had something to do with being satisfied. Pat looked it up and found that it meant overindulging or eating too much.

The word "vestigial" caught my eye in "My Reading Life." I learned that it comes from the word vestige, which I knew, and means something that once was but now exists or appears no longer. (For example, I stare into the mirror each day, searching for vestigial signs of youth.) Another of his words was "inchoate," which I found to mean something in an early stage of development or something imperfectly formed or developed. "Alexin," I discovered, means something that complements, completes or makes whole. A "cutpurse" is a pickpocket; a "slattern" is an untidy woman. "Vertiginous," whose synonym is the word "giddy," means revolving or whirling.

"Lupine," when I looked it up meant either a plant in the pea family or something resembling a wolf, ravenous or rapacious, meaning greedy or plundering.

In context, he meant wolf-like, but how strange that the same spelling could produce such different meanings.

It is a paradox of the English language.

Conroy used the word "imprecations" in place of the word "curses," thereby elevating the intended meaning above what passes for offensive street talk these days. He also chose the word "Lepidoptera" when he could have used "butterflies."

Of Parisians, he wrote, "there is something irresistible in their sangfroid," a word meaning "coolness" or "composure" and pronounced "san-fwra."

Some, such as the broadcast news veteran who shares this roof, take issue with choosing words not in common or frequent usage, but others, myself among them, exult in the discovery of nuanced and complex words to express and convey the depth and breadth of human knowledge and understanding. It's the thrill of the hunt. For me, it is a surprise, nay, horror, every year to find the number of slang words and expressions that find their way to acceptance in Webster's. It's as if we're intent on creating a whole new language for ourselves.

What will happen to beautiful words with historical origins when they are replaced by monosyllabic shorthand?

Of course, the newest technological products such as computers, smart phones and e-books like the Kindle come built in with their own dictionary, so perhaps it will be handheld dictionaries that become obsolete and not the words themselves. Let us hope.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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