The SAT Is Watering Down Its Vocabulary Component

I didn't take the SAT when I was at Holy Trinity High School many Blood moons ago. The Holy Cross brothers thought the ACT was a better measurement  of  intellectual chops, and who was a naif, such as I,  to raise an objection. SAT? ACT? After WWII, acronyms ruled the world.

One thing I knew about both was that each  put a premium on vocabulary.  I realized early in secondary school that in order to read the assigned novels in English class, I had to expand mine.  Take Melville . I remember  reading Moby Dick for extra credit my junior year.  I had gotten a part-time job at a law office across the street from City Hall.  Saturdays , after I finished my meager duties, I had its library all to myself. Some of those mornings I pored over that whale of a tale. My dictionary by my side, slowly, methodically, I would  expand my command of the English language.  So I thought.

Mr. Melville, of course, helped with passages like this one from the end of Chapter 26:

"If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave around them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times life himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman's arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; than against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict Bunyan, the pale poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commoners; bear me out in it, O God!"

You could imagine the words I had to look up!   Of course, in some cases---if  the book were mine---I underlined, circled, or highlighted the verbal critters for a later investigation. My own dictionary, a Webster Collegiate, eventually was dog-earred into decrepitude.

I dredged up  these old memories about words after I  heard that the SAT brain trust has decided to eliminate 'obscure' words from its vocabulary agenda. Words like 'lachrymose' and 'propinquity'.  Of course, it figures in a  Twitter world of just so many characters.  In such a literary universe these locutions are pretty heavy baggage.

Wherever in the afterlife the masters of language congregate, Melville is surely weeping.  I myself feel a bit lachrymose.  That is,  I sense  the  propinquity of tears.



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  • "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?… Has it ever occurred to your, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?…The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
    - Syme

    Orwell's 1984

  • In reply to 4zen:

    I wonder if Orwell contemplated corporate speak, the first abomination being "grow" as a transitive verb, such as "grow the business." Then someone who was my rank got promoted to corporate and started using a real funny inflection, and when he finally got around to inviting me to a sales meeting, tried to explain to me why.

    The ultimate result is Forrest Claypool, who uses corporate speak to try to cover up that he doesn't know what he is doing. However, he is slowly being exposed.

    Maybe Scott Adams was even more relevantly prescient, or maybe just reactive.

  • In reply to jack:

    I'll take today's Dilbert as an example. What can a "company origin" story mean when most companies have acquired, merged with, and divested so many companies that you can't trace them? For instance, I don't think Sara Lee cheesecake started with Jimmy Dean sausage.

  • Oh my! I've been thinking of reading "Moby Dick" since (glory be) seeing a neighbor enjoying it on the bus. (He said the short chapters are ideal for bus rides!) Now, between you and 4zen, it's joined my list and been underlined. Many thanks! (I may need to -- get to -- look up some words, as I'm doing with a novel I'm reading in French, but THAT'S HOW I LEARN!)

  • Great post, AW, beautifully written. I second the comments of 4Zen and MargaretSerious. Thank you.

    I love the idea of reading Moby Dick on a bus! People should read and really think about 1984, too.

    In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, books are forbidden. The fireman's first act of rebellion is to save a book--a dictionary.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thanks, WG. Fahrenheit 451 is one of my favorites, and I loved Oscar Werner in the movie too. I had forgotten about the dictionary. 1984 deserves to be read again and again, especially to remind us of the dangers of an insidious form of modern brainwashing as a result of money being identified with free speech.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    AW, it must have been the movie version, because I do remember a dictionary (and Oscar Werner, and the lovely Julie Christie.) But, according to (discredited) Wikipedia, in the book, Montag rescues a Bible.

    1984 is still the most disturbing book I have ever read. 4zen's quote is brilliant!

    Have you read "The Circle?" I have only read an excerpt in the New Yorker. Pretty scarey stuff, too.

  • I take it that you brought your own books to the law library, because if it were restricted to the usual tools of the trade, you would learn some words, but not anything literary, except by chance. I assume that your part time job predated Judge Posner's writings.

    Rest assured, while I am not as up on Moby Dick as I once was, I know whereof I speak on this issue.

    This might also get me back to 4zen's comment on Job, where about the only thing I remember from reading James Joyce in college was that it was not linear.

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