“100 Words That All High School Graduates – And Their Parents – Should Know”


In clearing out some old files in my desk, I came across a single undated sheet that had the above title and the following text:

The editors of the American Heritage® dictionaries have compiled a list of 100 words they recommend every high school graduate should know.

“The words we suggest,” says senior editor Steven Kleinedler, “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.”

Then followed the entire list of 100 words


abjure abrogate abstemious acumen antebellum auspicious belie
bellicose bowdlerize chicanery chromosome churlish circumlocution circumnavigate
deciduous deleterious diffident enervate enfranchise epiphany equinox
euro evanescent expurgate facetious fatuous feckless fiduciary
filibuster gamete gauche gerrymander hegemony hemoglobin homogeneous
hubris hypotenuse impeach incognito incontrovertible inculcate infrastructure
interpolate irony jejune kinetic kowtow laissez faire lexicon
loquacious lugubrious metamorphosis mitosis moiety nanotechnology nihilism
nomenclature nonsectarian notarize obsequious oligarchy omnipotent orthography
oxidize parabola paradigm parameter pecuniary photosynthesis plagiarize
plasma polymer precipitous

quasar quotidian recapitulate reciprocal
reparation respiration sanguine soliloquy subjugate suffragist supercilious
tautology taxonomy tectonic tempestuous thermodynamics totalitarian unctuous
usurp vacuous vehement vortex winnow wrought xenophobe
yeoman ziggurat

Of course, all such prescriptive lists are immediately targets for criticism by people who challenge the inclusion and exclusion of words. The temptation is for readers who think they have a large vocabulary to dismiss those words that they do not personally know as being unnecessary.

The standard of “able to use these words correctly'” is higher than just knowing what they mean. There were words that I had heard or read and was vaguely familiar with but was unsure about the exact meaning (abjure, jejune, moiety, quotidian) and would never venture to use them in a sentence and in fact have never done so.

If your list includes many esoteric words, whatever they are, then it is pretty much guaranteed that people who can use those words will have a large vocabulary so the specific words do not matter.

But surely when making a list of specific word that one says people should know, the words should be those that one has a reasonable chance of encountering in daily life? And this is where I have some concerns with this list.

The words that I felt did not belong in a list of words that one should know were those that were technical. Some words (chromosome, hypotenuse, nanotechnology, oxidize, photosynthesis, plasma, polymer, thermodynamics) perhaps occur frequently enough in everyday life that maybe one needs to have a rough idea of what they mean but should one be able to actually use them? Other technical words (gamete, mitosis, quasar, hemoglobin) seem to me to be far too esoteric to be on such a list. I don’t think anyone other than a specialist would need to know what they mean, even less be able to use them.

And ziggurat? I had never heard this word before and on looking it up, find that it refers to an “ancient Mesopotamian temple tower consisting of a lofty pyramidal structure built in successive stages with outside staircases and a shrine at the top” or to any shape or structure that is similar in form. What are the odds that one would need to ever use that word?

Comments

  1. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Ziggurat? Hah! Just this past Friday we were driving into Sacramento, California and I actually said out loud to my wife, “Look, a ziggurat!” and so it was, see for yourself: https://goo.gl/maps/SEJwx

  2. says

    Well, if we’re going to just list common errors, how about “loose” and “lose”. I’ve seen “lose” misspelled so friggin’ often (just this morning in the comments on one of the other blogs on this network) that for a while it was starting to look weird when spelt correctly. Usually it’s difficult to tell if it’s a typo or not, but I’ve seen some people do it consistently enough that it seems that’s how they think you spell it.

  3. Andrew G. says

    “jejune” – the only reason I know this word is from an old Arthur C. Clarke short story (in which a character comments on his appearance on a quiz show with “I’d like to see you come up with a synonym for “jejune” after being up until three in the morning”)

    “quotidian” – that one I had to look up; I don’t think I would ever use it, because it doesn’t have sufficiently distinct connotations from its more commonplace synonyms to be of much use other than signalling erudition.

  4. dxdt says

    “But surely when making a list of specific word that one says people should know, the words should be those that one has a reasonable chance of encountering in daily life? ”

    I would tend to agree with you. I think that they would have been better off using something along the lines of “fun to know.”

    Also some of their list seems self-serving to the dictionary community. In addition I thought some of the scientific terms they chose were a bit baffling. I mean why include “deciduous” and not “coniferous?” And then “thermodynamics?” Yes, I think all people who have access to to the resources should get a good background in thermodynamics, but just learning the definition of the word? What is the use in that?

  5. WhiteHatLurker says

    Antebellum? Not of much use if all y’all ain’t from the US.

    Moiety seems an odd choice from the chemistry terms. I have to disagree about haemoglobin, gamete and quasar – I do hear those a fair amount.

    Is “plasma” the blood component, or the state of matter?

    My pet peeve words would be then and than.

    I do agree that “irony” should be known and used correctly!

  6. Trickster Goddess says

    Gerrymander is another word that isn’t of much use outside the US.

    And bowdlerize? Is that even used anymore?

  7. John Morales says

    [meta]

    Lassi @14, your link, OTOH, contains a multitude of words of such reconditeness that they are unknown to me. (!)

  8. philipelliott says

    The current version of this list can be found here, along with several other lists of different types.

    While I might quibble with a few words on this list, many of these learned in context would indicate a good retention of the indicated subjects, i.e. biology(chromosome, mitosis), chemistry(thermodynamics), philosophy(tautology, nihilism), etc. Not to mention knowing several of the multiple meanings many of these have.

  9. says

    Of course, all such prescriptive lists are immediately targets for criticism by people who challenge the inclusion and exclusion of words.

    It could have been any words, more scientific, more historical, or from an milieu. It’s not the words themselves that matter. What matters is, if you don’t know at least half of them, it’s a failure of schools to teach and a failure of the student to be curious. A lot of words I know didn’t come from school, they came from my own reading. But without teachers to drive my curiosity instead of killing it, I wouldn’t have read as many books.

    These ten are as useful as any on the list both for meaning and usefulness. I or others could easily create a list of a hundred that the list’s creators would mostly agree on.

    ascertain
    constabulary
    esthete
    murk
    obligatory
    palindrome
    pumice
    salacious
    sequoia
    vociferous

    The temptation is for readers who think they have a large vocabulary to dismiss those words that they do not personally know as being unnecessary.

    On the contrary, as with anything that requires education, the more one knows, the more they see the value in learning things they don’t. It is the ignorant who despise education, not the educated.

    As for ziggurat, players of the game Quake know the word well. Who says playing computer games is a waste of time?

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    There were words that I had heard or read and was vaguely familiar with but was unsure about the exact meaning (abjure, jejune, moiety, quotidian) and would never venture to use them in a sentence and in fact have never done so.

    You just did.

    WhiteHatLurker @ # 11: Moiety seems an odd choice from the chemistry terms.

    I first ran into it reading anthropology; I suspect sociologists use it too (differently than chemists).

  11. Andrew G. says

    “moiety” is another one I learned from SF – Heinlein in that case, and the anthropological sense of the term.

    Certainly never encountered it in chemistry; there seem to be better alternatives.

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