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
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?