Last year I received an oversized postcard in the mail from a publisher promoting three workbooks designed to be used by students “side-by-side with their own copies of Stephanie Meyer’s books to unlock their vocabulary potential!” The catchy headline was “Help your students master their SAT vocabulary skills with Twilight!”
I wondered then what words used by Meyers, known for short paragraphs and pithy sentences replete with the argot of the young, would merit study and might prove useful on an aptitude examination. Meyer’s syntax hardly taxes the intellect. For her, scrutinizing is a verb stretch, and adverbs she trots out now and then such as inexorably and verbose and the adjectives inconsequential and omnipresent should already be in a tenth-grader’s lexicon. Sesquipedalian she is not, preferring simple subject-predicate-object structure (e.g., “The letter slid across the table and thunked into my elbow” from Eclipse).
I put the card on the top of a filing cabinet in the basement and pretty much forgot about it until I recently purchased Bugs Bunny’s Adventures for two young children of some friends. This small book, published by Whitman in 1948, tells three tales in less than forty pages. Exposition is brief and the narrative moves rapidly through paragraphs of three sentences or less.
The stories and illustrations were obviously geared toward a reader under the age of ten, yet I wondered as I turned the pages how many of the words and expressions used would have stumped teenagers today. Ballast, two bits, barker, and scudded appear in the first four pages alone. How many of Meyer’s creatures ever scudded across the night sky?
Why waste time with the fly-by-nights? Have students read books that provide a real challenge to the intellect and learn from accompanying workbooks that truly enrich their word power. Examples:
From You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe: objurgate, indurate, sward, cognoscenti, sidereal, cavil, anodyne, congeries, purlieu, futilitarian, recreant, immolation, helot.
From A Passage to India by E.M. Forster: minatory, dandle, expatiate, hauteur, facile, temporize, periphrasis.
From Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: evanescent, macerate, pother, pertinacious, bunkum, effusive.
From The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence: execrate, demoiselle, recusant, lambent, serviette, spurious.
From Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry: reboant, nutant, cortege, imbricate, eructate, sputum, gibbous, extirpate, desuetude, cloaca, claquer, jongleur, retiform.
From The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann: myrmidon, mephitic, famulus, bastinado, gallimaufry, sybaritic, logomachy, rodomontade
From The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth: recto, feculent, pandect, entre nous, casuist.
From A Little Learning by Evelyn Waugh: lustrum, adumbrate, laicism, sortilege, lapidary.
From Without a Stitch in Time by Peter De Vries: bantling, overweening, treacle, scherzo, usufruct.
From The Ill-Tempered Clavichord by S.J. Perelman: diseur, afreet, dernier cri, cynosure, tosspot, embonpoint, quod, quidnunc, fleer, logy.
From Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley: palliation, lucubrate, lorgnon, nacreous, memento mori, anchorite, panoply, doppelganger, tonsure, desiccation, perorate, rissole, equivocal, draconian, velleity, callipygous, bumptious, suppurating, stertorous, borborygmous, dyspeptic, superannuated, pullulation, dotard, cataclysm, coruscate, refulgence, centotaph, peremptory, couchant, quotidian, inchoate, turbid, exacerbate, recrudescent, saprophyte, casuistry, Barmecidal, efficacy, jeremiad.
To the skeptic who asks “When will high school students ever use efficacy or quotidian in conversation?” my rejoinder is “When was the last time you heard a teen utter two consecutive sentences without using you know or like?” The true test by which people are measured by others is not when they mark answers on an exam but rather when they open their mouths to speak.