2002.09.25 An evanescent vocabulary

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Let me introduce you to the word “moiety.” Until yesterday, I’m sure I never saw that word in my life. I’ve never read it. I’ve never heard it spoken. But according to the editors of the American Heritage College Dictionary, it’s a word I should know.

That and 99 others.

Last week, the dictionary editors released a list called “100 words that all high graduates—and their parents— should know. Talk about making a person feel stupid.

The list was made public just after a recent announcement by the people who write the SAT test. Math scores keep going up, but verbal scores actually went down last year.

Moiety, as the rest of you surely know, means half or a portion. Anthropologists might know it, too, as either of two kinship groups based on unilateral descent, blah, blah, blah.

The 100 word list starts with abjure, moves on through lugubrious and quotidian, and ends up with ziggurat.

I’ve heard of all four of those words and can define none of them. There’s not too many of the 100 than I could actually define. Several I could use in a sentence and a few more I could probably figure out if I read them in a sentence.

But overall, do I ever feel stupid.

I RAN through a few of the words with my wife and eldest daughter to see how we stood.

We made it down through the fifth word in the list before Colleen was ready to offer a guess: antebellum. To me, that sounded like a period of history and Colleen said it was related to the South.

Antebellum: Belonging to the period before a war, especially the American Civil War.

How about this one: enervate. Energize, Colleen said. That sounded good to me.

Enervate: To weaken or destroy the strength or vitality.

“Just the opposite,” Colleen said. “I was sure I had that right.”

That’s expected, according the editors. The word is often incorrectly used to mean “to invigorate.”

Rosanna suggested that I move down to the P words. Several of her recent vocabulary words in pre-composition class have been Ps and later. I hit the Os first and offered obsequious. No one had a guess so I wen��t to the definition: Full of or exhibiting servile compliance; fawning.

“Fawning, yeah,” said Rosie. “I remember it from class because we didn’t know any of the definition words either.”

That’s the problem with many of the definitions. They seem to engage in circumlocution. That word, by the way, is located between churlish and circumnavigate.

Paradigm (“I would have got it right in multiple choice,” said Colleen). Soliloquy (Rosanna knew it, thanks to a play she was in). Vortex (“A really cool ride at King’s Island,” says Rosanna). Inculcate (“It’s a nice way of saying brainwashing,” suggests Colleen).

And so it went. There were some hits and there were lots of misses.

I HEARD about the list on a radio program. The interviewer asked the dictionary senior editor if he had a favorite word among the hundred. He did.

“Actually, I do like the word supercilious,” he said, following up on the intervi�ewer’s use of the word. “Especially after I learned the etymology.”

The Latin roots come from eyebrow and pride. The raising of the eyebrow, the raising of pride showing haughty disdain. “It’s just a really cool word,” he added.

If the interviewer had been asked, I think her favorite would have been jejune. She said it two or three times, and it seemed like a special word just by the way she spoke it. She mentioned how churlish and jejune could both relate to teenage attitudes.

For me, I really like the word diffident. It means shy or timid, lacking in self-confidence. I couldn’t have defined it because it’s been too many months since I became fond of it. I first saw it on the menu at a Chinese restaurant. One particular entrée contained “diffident vegetables.”

And the most appropriate word from the list? That has to be evanescent, because my efforts to learn these 100 must-know words are sure to vanish like vapor.

    – Sept. 25, 2002 
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