What’s in a Word?

The fact that the College Board is deemphasizing vocabulary on the SAT has been widely covered. See this report in the New York Times if you missed it:


This makes me a little wistful on several accounts. For one thing, I remember how I, as a high school student, decades ago, had to study lists of obscure words, which today’s crop of students won’t have to be bothered with. Sure, I never used words like pusillanimous, penurious, virago, and uxurious very much (if at all), but I took a certain pride in knowing them. And there were many words I discovered and came to understand from that early learning experience that became part of me and that help make up my vocabulary today.

When I work with students, I try to get them to understand that vocabulary is an important part of writing and that words like meticulous, fastidious, and punctilious are not interchangeable but that they all have their own nuances and connotations. In fact, any one of these words  might be exactly what you’re looking for when you’re trying to express a specific thought or feeling in your writing. To read in the Times article that the College Board has come to the decision that the word vacated is “obscure” is, frankly, a bit depressing. I know, however, from my experience working with writers that they appreciate the precision that good writing demands and they come to value le mot juste, which means “the right word.” Gustav Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, one of the greatest novels ever written, believed in the principle of finding “le mot juste,” which he considered as the key means to achieve quality in literary art, and he could take an entire week to find that word. It’s gratifying to me to see the level of dedication that so many of my students bring to their essays and how much they come to value the power of words.