William F. Buckley Jr.’s delight in using big words was hardly the most significant thing about him, but it nevertheless appeared front and center in the headline of his New York Times obituary: “Sesquipedalian Spark of the Right.” At times his “polysyllabic exuberance,” as the Times called it, got him into trouble. In a 1986 column, “I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words,” he recounted disputes with his editors over what qualified a word as too obscure for the common reader. Explaining the addition of a footnote defining “lapidary” to one of Buckley’s columns, Ed Williams, the associate editor of the Charlotte Observer, voiced a suspicion shared by many of Buckley’s critics: “(1) you like to show off, and (2) you take delight in irritating people.”
Of course Buckley liked to show off his vocabulary. “I do not,” he protested, “think of ‘lapidary’ as a word so unrecognizable as to interrupt the reading flow of the average college graduate.” Okay, but if you’re going to maintain that your vocabulary is precise but not ostentatious, you probably shouldn’t publish your own branded Word-a-Day Calendar. Still, I’ll take the vocab show-off over the man who expects me to be irritated by the chance to learn a new word. There was a time when interrupting one’s reading flow to look up a word meant taking out a dictionary the size of a tuba case, carefully turning page after page of onionskin, perhaps even looking through a magnifying glass. Now it means a few taps on a smartphone and, boom, you know something new. What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, cultural hostility to so-called big words has just penetrated to what may be their sanctum sanctorum: the SAT. Here is the College Board’s website on the Reading portion of the newly-revised test: “The Reading Test focuses on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education: the stuff you’ve been learning in high school, the stuff you’ll need to succeed in college. It’s about how you take in, think about, and use information. . . . It’s not about how well you memorize facts and definitions, so you won’t need to use flashcards or insider tricks or spend all night cramming.” Mikhail Zinshteyn, writing about the new test for the Atlantic, put the matter less obliquely. “Obscure vocabulary, colloquially known as ‘SAT words,’ has been cut from the new test.”
The assumption that many SAT words were genuinely obscure cries out to be challenged. There is a difference between words that are obscure because they are seldom used in general-interest writing and words that appear obscure to those who haven’t read much. The winning words of the Scripps National Spelling Bee—e.g, nunatuk, scherenschnitte, stichomythia, cymotrichous, and serrefine—belong in the former category. The sort of words that appear on Vocabulary.com’s list of the “300 Most Difficult SAT Words”—e.g., accost, flagrant, instigate, ostracism, and penchant—belong very squarely in the latter. Whether kids who hear words like these in everyday conversation are at an advantage is beside the point, because that isn’t where they should be learning them.
Nor should they be learning them from flashcards at the eleventh hour. They should learn them by habitually reading books, magazines, and newspapers. The old SAT Verbal rewarded students who had read a great deal. That it could be gamed by last-minute memorization was a bug, not a feature. Still, the memorizers could only hope to achieve by hard, tedious work the kind of score that the seasoned readers could get without breaking a sweat. Some of them, or their parents, were foolish enough to pay for expensive test prep courses, which raise scores on average 30 points. I say foolish because the old SAT Verbal tested knowledge that could be had, as Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting (1997), “for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”
There are non-English speakers in competitive Scrabble who, having memorized the game’s official dictionary, are able to play at a high level without knowing what any of the words mean. The student who gains a college-ready vocabulary without reading, and who doesn’t regularly use that vocabulary in writing or speech, isn’t much better off than that. He will be ill-prepared for college-level work in general, and even more so if he ends up at a demanding school. Professors of my acquaintance have told me that to say many of their students “struggle” is putting it charitably. I’ve been shown term papers that can only be called term papers because they bear the date, course title, and correct number of pages of printed type. The portions that aren’t incoherent are usually plagiarized.
One might argue that these students only hurt themselves when they fail to prepare for college but find a way in anyway. Yet that simply isn’t true. Students who can’t really read or write make their professors’ lives a living hell. They contribute little to class discussions that their peers are paying a great deal for the privilege of participating in. They flout academic ethics, drive grade inflation, and diminish the value of a degree. The old SAT was a flawed attempt to weed them out. From the sounds of things, the new one won’t even try. As Time reported two years ago, when the new test was in development, “the words that the SAT will highlight in vocabulary questions will be ‘high utility’ words that students are likely to encounter in life and reading beyond those four hours in the testing location.”
What is college if not a four-year engagement with precisely the kind of words found on the old test—and a lot of even bigger ones? If the old test was gameable, the new one sounds like it was designed to accommodate students who won’t even pretend to be readers. “Prior topic-specific knowledge is never tested,” the College Board reassures us. Of course it isn’t. Despite the best efforts of E. D. Hirsch, the typical college freshman has probably never possessed quite so little topic-specific knowledge (or “knowledge,” for short). He may believe that the College Board did him a favor by dumbing down the test. On the contrary, it holds him in contempt, sees him as a child who can’t be expected to read, write, think, or speak any better than a child. The sad thing is, he doesn’t even know what he’s missing.