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Verbal Energy

Word treasures going at fire-sale prices!

The Monitor’s language columnist is loath to argue against usefulness as a criterion for the vocabulary high-schoolers should acquire; but ‘obscure’ words may be the spices in our verbal stew.

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    A student pauses while taking a sample SAT test during his test prep class in Newton, Mass.
    John Nordell
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This space is not usually devoted to retail shopping news, but here’s a tip I have to share: January may be a great time for real bargains in a class of goods widely known as “obscure vocabulary words.” 

The “new” SAT, coming in March, will not include “vocabulary students may not have heard before and are likely not to hear again,” as the College Board put it in a press release back in March 2014. That was when the board announced its overhaul of the test formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, widely used for college admissions in the United States.

The “SAT words” of yore will be gone.

As The New York Times explained, in the new test “the focus will be on what the College Board calls ‘high utility’ words that appear in many contexts, in many disciplines – often with shifting meanings – and they will be tested in context.”

Thus, “[A] question based on a passage about an artist who ‘vacated’ from a tradition of landscape painting, asks whether it would be better to substitute the word ‘evacuated,’ ‘departed’ or ‘retired,’ or to leave the sentence unchanged.” The right answer, for the lifelong learners among us, is “departed.”

Education reporters have been all over this one; it came to my attention only when I spotted a whimsical “Elegy for lost verbiage” in The Economist’s “World in 2016” preview issue.

Far be it from me to argue against utility or context. But my first response here was “Hey, what words are you calling ‘obscure’?”

The words cited in the “Elegy” were picked from widely available sample tests rather than from an official College Board list. Cyndie Schmeiser, the board’s chief of assessment, confirms prevaricator and sagacious as words that will not be found on the new SAT. And she stresses that the new test “will measure students’ understanding of important, widely used words and phrases they will use throughout their lives.”

What does it say, though, about the state of public discourse if nonpartisan is deemed too obscure a term to expect young people to know?

Another word said to be going away is circumlocution. But it is such a perfect word for what people say when they can’t say what they mean: a verbal detour. It comes from Latin words meaning “a speaking around,” and how perfect that it’s five syllables long.

Alacrity is another bit of “verbiage” to be “lost,” regrettably. Derived from Latin and meaning “liveliness” or “eagerness,” it suggests a whip-cracking, “let’s get going” quality.

Or what about obstreperous? From a Latin word meaning “to oppose noisily,” it’s the perfect word for someone who doesn’t go along with the program without making a racket.

These specialized words may be the spices in our verbal stew. You don’t dump them in by the cupful, or even quarter cupful; but if you can’t deploy them one judicious teaspoonful after another, the soup is likely to be rather bland.

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