2006.05.24 Words for feeling feckless

Written by David Green.


I’ll bet I’m not the only one who can’t help taking those little tests that pop up in the media and the internet, even when I know the creator has an ulterior motive. So when the editors of a popular dictionary released a list of “100 words all high school graduates—and their parents—should know,” I was prepared to be ashamed of my stupidity. And, as usual, I wasn’t disappointed.

“The words we suggest,” says Steven Kleinedler, senior editor of American Heritage dictionaries, “are not meant to be exhaustive but are a benchmark against which graduates and their parents can measure themselves. If you are able to use these words correctly, you are likely to have a superior command of the language.” And, as in my case, if you don’t recognize a dozen or more of the words, just be thankful you graduated before they came up with the MEAP test.

Heck, I’m a college graduate and the list of words I’m unfamiliar with ranges from A (abjure, to renounce solemnly or on oath; to repudiate; to abstain or reject) to Z (ziggurat, which isn’t even in my own dictionary. Any 2006 grads out there that recognize this one? What, no one got a dictionary for graduation?).

Actually, I think American Heritage would probably fare better among younger buyers if they published a rock music dictionary. Think of the possibilities...measuring your knowledge against a benchmark list of groups from ABBA to ZZ Top, solo artists from Paula Abdul to Warren Zevon. That would be more exciting than just a bunch of words the editors compiled to make us feel dumb.

Some of the words the editors came up with, though, seem pretty easy for their stated purpose. Who among us, for instance, is unfamiliar with the word “impeach?” But for every easy one, there’s also an “abstemious,” defined as “showing moderation in the use of drink and food.”

Or how about “deleterious,” causing moral or physical injury; harmful. Or “enervate,” to deprive of vitality or strength; to weaken. The more I look at this list, the more enervated I feel. In fact, if I get enervated enough, eventually I may become “jejune,” lacking in substance or nourishment; immature. Is this a jejune column? Or is my “lexicon” too “loquacious?” If you knew those last two words, as I did, then you be the judge.

“Moiety,” another word that threw me for a minute, is defined as a half; any portion, part or share. What, you want me to use it in a sentence? OK, how’s this: The greater moiety of the column is over with. Just be glad it’s not a “quotidian” column, that is, occurring or recurring daily.

If I really were writing a quotidian column, I’m sure I’d eventually be accused of “tautology,” a statement which is an unnecessary repetition of the same idea; redundancy. Hey, if a person had to come up with a column every day rather than just twice a month, some tautology is going to happen.

Some of the other somewhat familiar, but seldom-seen words on the list include abrogate, auspicious, bowdlerize, circumlocution, fatuous, hegemony, lugubrious, sanguine, supercilious, unctuous, vacuous and yeoman.

The final word on the list I didn’t recognize was “taxonomy.” Like ziggurat, it’s not in my personal dictionary. Actually, I have a bigger dictionary, but it’s currently supporting one end of my sofa so it’s technically part of my apartment’s “infrastructure,” another word on the list I would hope every graduate knows.

I doubt that either word would be in the big dictionary, anyway. It’s so old, I got it for free from a library. I still think ziggurat is a word those fun-loving editors at American Heritage made up to sell more dictionaries. Because if all of us knew all the words, who would rush out to buy a new copy?

Instead, throw in a few words that nobody knows and the feckless among us may go buy one, whether they know what feckless means or not. Because after all, who wants to be churlish, diffident, fatuous, or gauche, not to mention supercilious?

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