Friday, December 19, 2008

Why a raconteur should never fear consulting a dictionary

As a child, I never heard anyone pronounce the word “ennui.” The rural Southern people I grew up with were too busy to be bored and the moments that might have been dull, they sat and talked. So, from the first time I encountered “ennui” in a book until, years later, when my (sometimes French-speaking) spouse gently corrected me, I pronounced it “N-U.”

Maybe I had looked up “ennui” in a dictionary at one point, but somehow my mind could not grasp how anything with two Ns could not have a strong “n” sound in the middle. And though that dictionary might have told me that “ennui” meant weariness and boredom, in my mind “ennui” sounded like sadness. I’m sure I said more than once in college, “I’m feeling a little ‘N-U’ today” and no one corrected me—perhaps they thought I was speaking of some condition or university they had never heard of.

A similar thing happened with “poignant.” Though I correctly understood its meaning, I pronounced it like someone’s poor attempt at saying “pregnant” with a Jersey accent. This, too, my husband corrected me on, not so gently this time. After years of hearing me mispronouncing it he finally shouted “It’s ‘poi-nyent’ not ‘poigg-nannt’!” Incredulous, I had to have him pronounce it several times before I believed him.

I consider myself somewhat of an autodidact, notwithstanding the efforts of several of my high school teachers who attempted to bring me viewpoints and correct pronunciations from their educated perspectives. But I have been a lazy autodidact because, too often, I forget to consult a dictionary when encountering new words, taking their meaning from their current contexts only.

Consequently, when I arrived at a writing workshop given by my friend, Kim Dana Kupperman, a couple of months ago, I did not heed her advice when she set out a dictionary at the start of a writing exercise and suggested we consult it if we needed clarity on any of the terms she was going to give us. She asked us to write a short description of our first kiss then passed around a paper bag filled with little slips of folded paper and told us to randomly choose a new persona from which to rewrite our descriptions. I pulled out “raconteur.”

“‘Raconteur’ is akin to ‘rake’ and thus is a bawdy retelling of a story,” I told myself, realizing it was another word that I had simply breezed through while reading, on the assumption that I already knew its meaning. But I didn’t want to get up in front of the class and look it up since Kim had introduced me to the class as one of her old college buddies, which in my mind, was someone who should have known what ‘raconteur’ meant. Thus, my innocent and somewhat accidental first kiss became a tale of conquest and bragging.

Kim had us read our revised passages aloud and have the rest of the class guess our persona. “This one will be easy,” I promised my classmates, but no one could guess it and Kim looked puzzled since it didn’t seem to be a persona she had put in the bag. I leaned over and pointed it out on the list of personas on her desk. “It’s that one,” I whispered, thinking she would understand and be able to enlighten the class; when she still looked puzzled, I knew I was in trouble.

In retrospect, it was one of those a-ha moments that everyone needs, both humbling and clarifying. I now intend to consult a dictionary more frequently, especially anytime one is offered to me, and I hope I will not be too arrogant to use it.

Still, I have to admit, I blushed a bit that day, and blush a little now, thinking back to that moment. It all makes me a little poignant with N-U.

1 comment:

Thia said...

Dear Beth, I also am an old friend of Kim Kupperman, from U.C.S.C. and I am in Capitola after having lived in Japan for more than twenty years. Could you help me get in touch with her? I see she'll be in Capitola next Sunday at Capitola Book Cafe, but if she has time before or after, I would crazy love to catch up with her. I went by Sindi Jackson when we hung out way back when, now I go by Thia (from Cynthia). My phone: 831-212-3014 Thank you very much for your help, and sorry I post here when it's your blog but I haven't found another way to contact Kim. Truly, Thia