The Invaluableness of ‘Obscure’ Words and the SAT

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I vividly remember a seventh-grade English teacher telling our class, with great solemnity, “Small minds use big words.”

For years, this guided my writing.

Until I figured out how wrong, how profoundly wrong, she had been.

And that’s why I’m so concerned about the new SAT’s approach to vocabulary—namely cutting “obscure” and “arcane” words. According to the Times,The SAT’s rarefied vocabulary challenges will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, like ‘empirical’ and ‘synthesis.’”

Over the last 25 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that maximizing the words at one’s disposal is indispensable for two reasons.

First, words enable us to explain, and an infinitely complex world requires an expansive vocabulary so we can be clear and precise.

Jane Austen is known for her extensive vocabulary, which can cause eye rolling: “blowsy,” “solicitude,” “diffident,” “abstruse,” and “licentiousness.”

But as I read her books, dictionary always nearby, I found that every single time she used an unfamiliar word, it was because that word was exactly right; it captured the nuance she intended to convey.

For example, in one famous case, she might’ve used “shy” but chose “diffident” instead.


“Shy” derives from “easily frightened,” whereas “diffident” derives from “lacking confidence or trust.” Similar, yes, but when describing a novel’s character, the difference is yawning.

Two centuries earlier, Shakespeare found the contents of the English language lacked the words he needed to get things just right. So he invented over 1,700 words, including “equivocal,” “obsequiously,” and “zany.”

But why bother? Isn’t having a word close enough, well, good enough?

No. Some reformers might say Dr. Diane Ravitch “abjured” her previous beliefs. But that would mean she’d formally renounced a solemn legal or religious oath. That would go too far. Instead, it’s fairer to say that she conducted a “volte-face,” a reversal of opinion (deriving from “turning one’s face”).

As we write or talk about migrant-labor families and their search for work and schools, should we describe their travels as “nomadic,” “peripatetic,” or “itinerant,” all of which connote moving from place to place?

The first derives from “roaming in search of pastures,” bringing “work” to mind. The second relates to the way Aristotle taught while walking in the Lyceum, bringing “education” to mind. The last relates to regular, predictable travel (like a sales representative crossing her territory or a judge riding her circuit), bringing to mind perhaps seasonal migration. Each word appropriate in specific contexts, but they are not interchangeable.

Finally, the words “unctuous” and “lubricious” can both be used to describe an inanimate object that is “oily or slippery.” But they can both be applied to people, as well. The former describes someone who is friendly but in a seemingly insincere way. The latter connotes lecherousness. If an education reporter is writing about a relationship between a high-school student and a school employee, one of those words is far more fitting.

The second reason for cultivating large vocabularies in our students is that it allows us to see, not just describe, the world more clearly. That is, when you know a word exists, you know that what it describes exists.

One might say that Katrina “obliterated” New Orleans; that would mean “remove from existence” or “utterly destroy.” But that’s not entirely accurate; low-lying areas and those populated by low-income, mostly African American families were the ones that were destroyed. Higher-income areas were far less affected.

Knowing the word “decimate” enabled me to understand the situation far better. It means to “destroy a large number” of something. It derives from the Roman army’s practice of randomly killing every tenth man in a unit as punishment for the unit’s cowardice in battle.

Knowing that a type of devastation can be partial and/or predictable helps me understand the roots and status of school systems in New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Indian reservations, and more.

As we think about how outsiders might help such areas, the word “paternalistic” is often used. It connotes that authority runs an area, like a father, by usurping others’ liberties. When I learned the word “avuncular,” a light bulb went off in my head. It means, “like an uncle” (not a father) and is generally used to describe kindliness and geniality. Now I have hope that outsiders, with good intentions and humility, can lend a hand—do with, not just do to.

And when leaders all of types try to sappily ingratiate themselves with a group, I used to immediately think it “saccharine,” sentimental but not sincere—I’d discount their words swiftly.

However, I recently learned the word “treacly,” which also means “cloying sentimentality.” But it derives from “antidote against venom.” Perhaps these molasses-sweet do-gooders are actually fighting against poisonous conditions.

I agree with the College Board that graduates should possess functional language, and I appreciate that the SAT’s use of “arcane” language can unfairly advantage those that who can pay for expensive test-prep courses.

And the College Board’s leader, David Coleman, coauthored Common Core, which expects students to develop “extensive vocabularies, built through reading and study.” That helps to ease my worry a bit.

I would just hate to see words devolve into simple tools for enabling a student to pass a professor’s class or succeed in her places of work. That’s too narrow, too utilitarian for me.

Ostensibly “obscure” words give us powers of description that can inform our surroundings, and they can bring clarity and insight to our understanding or the world.

Please protect such words. Our tests should enable our kids to not just be college or career ready, but appreciate-and-live-life-to-the-fullest ready.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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