More about me this month: before deciding to become a lawyer I worked a few odd jobs, and one of them was teaching the English sections of the infamous standardized college entry test the SAT (formerly the Standardized Aptitude Test when I was a kid, now just the SAT because fuck acronyms having meaning1) along with a few subject-specific SAT II and AP-related courses. I taught anything not related to the sciences or math — history, geography, literature, grammar, and yeah, writing in general. I enjoyed some aspects of teaching, and I even considered getting an advanced degree and going into that field.
Then I realized that I wasn’t a perfectly good person with the patience of a saint and also that I like money. I have massive respect for teachers in America considering just how put upon they are here, and I have no desire to sacrifice myself in that way (and see how supposedly shocked some of our state officials are at our current teacher shortage — we treat them like shit and pay them shit salaries, then we suggest they also double as federal marshals? And they have the nerve to quit? Truly, utterly shocking. There’s a special circle of Hell reserved for hypocritical politicians.)
Part of my job as a tutor was to teach high school students vocabulary that comes up on the SAT. Some of these words are commonly used but at more of a high school reading level, the sorts of words you probably wouldn’t use too often in everyday conversation but might use in a formal piece of writing. Some are rarely if ever used in everyday conversation but have scientific or other specialized meanings that are important for students to learn. But there are a few SAT words that should never be used in any context, except to make fun of their use as I’m doing here.
This last category is full of words that are good to know if you plan on reading a lot of old literature, say up through the early 20th century, but that since have fallen out of both everyday and literary use. They’re still legitimate and technically usable words, but they’ve either been made redundant by more commonly used words or were always too highfalutin and ostentatious for anything more than occasional drops in very particular circumstances. (No, “highfalutin” and “ostentatious” don’t fall into this category. Though I don’t think I’ve ever used either on the site before today. Run a search and prove me wrong.)
But since we’ve established both today and in every post I’ve made over the past nine years that I’m a nerd anyway, let’s just give up the act here and have a look at seven of the words off of this 6,000 word SAT study list. Many of the fancier words on this list are commonly known as “SAT words” for the very reason that you’ll never use them after learning their meanings as a high school student studying for the SAT English sections.2 Going alphabetically down the list, these are words such as:
antediluvian – Meaning very old, and literally “before the flood”, as in the Great Flood that Noah survived along with his family and all those animals, then he presumably had to help repopulate the Earth again or something. I don’t remember exactly how that story goes. But my opinion on antediluvian is that it’s fine to use if you’re referring to something that occurred in scripture before the Flood, but not otherwise. If you’re using it just to mean “old”, then say “old”. Or “ancient” works for something or someone especially old. Throwing around antediluvian otherwise just makes you look like kind of a jerk.
eleemosynary – Of or relating to charity. I’d never even heard of or seen this word before seeing it on this list — if I taught it as a tutor, I’ve long since forgotten it. It’s taken from Latin and is the root of the common word “alms”, but why we still have eleemosynary in English is beyond me. It certainly shouldn’t be tested for on the SAT. Because who the hell uses it anymore? Again, aside from people who just care about showing off their education, about which see antediluvian above, only this case is even worse.
masticate – To chew. The verb masticate and its noun form mastication are often used to refer to the constant chewing of animals like cows, but they can also be used in a more satirical or joking way to refer instead to people chewing their food in a similar way as using “to feed” as an intransitive verb instead of “to eat”.
I actually think this word is fine to use in the right context, but it also sounds close enough to another common bodily function, both in its verb and noun forms, that it may cause you some problems with people who don’t know the term.
nonplussed – Taken from the Latin non plus, or no more, nonplussed is an adjective meaning confused or stunned into silence. Unlike most of the words on this list, it’s used fairly often even in modern writing. However, a lot of its users have no idea what it means and even use it in, if not quite its opposite sense, a very different sense from its actual meaning. The non- at the beginning looks like a negative prefix, which it isn’t (the non is sort of a negative, but you can’t remove it from the word and just be “plussed”) and the contexts the word is used in combined with that false prefix makes it look something like “unbothered” or “unfazed”, and it’s also sometimes used to mean “unimpressed” because who cares about meaning at this point if we’re just making shit up.
But do you think I’m going to go to war over nonplussed? No. In my view, if a word can no longer effectively communicate its own meaning in speech or writing, despite being in every English dictionary on Earth more advanced than a middle school level, it’s time to dump it. It’s broken and past fixing. That’s my opinion, anyway, but the people who write the SAT don’t share that opinion, so you’ll still have to know it if you’re taking the test. And beware, because nonplussed and other commonly misused words let them set up traps for unsuspecting students, and they love their fucking traps from what I remember.
perambulate – To walk around something, as in “after dinner I took a constitutional and perambulated the garden with my companion.” Unlike the last word, I don’t think this one needs to be dumped necessarily, but it’s a bit much when you can use “walk” or “stroll” for the same effect and have people actually understand what you mean. Sure, those don’t technically mean “to walk around“, but addition of the word “around” solves that problem.
puissant – Oh, here’s a good one. Puissant means powerful and/or influential, usually in reference to a person. It’s derived from Old French like so much of our vocabulary is, including a ton of commonly used words like beef and castle. Some of them are extra-literary archaic words like puissant, however. I can’t think of a single reason to use puissant, except that it has a completely coincidental resemblance to a slang term for a part of the female anatomy. A pretty funny one too, since that term is used in a vulgar way to refer to not strong but rather weak people (which I never understood. Just misogyny going on there? I’m no expert but it’s just a guess. Then again, we call difficult people dicks and pricks too, so maybe the matter goes beyond gender and just relates to our understandable obsession with genitals.)
pulchritude – Meaning physical beauty, from the Latin pulcher, or beautiful. It still occasionally shows up in journalistic and literary writing, but nobody knows what it means, and even if they do remember, they probably have to stop for a second to connect those wires in their brains because it doesn’t read or sound at all like its meaning. On top of all that, it’s a difficult word to say. Just try saying pulchritude clearly without having to spell out every syllable slowly — it takes some practice.
Like antediluvian and eleemosynary and the other couple of p-words on this list, you’ll come off like a jerk if you use this word. (Of course that didn’t stop someone at The Washington Post from using it early this year. I hope the editor at least made fun of the author for that word choice. That’s aside from the content of the article, which I have nothing to say about except that suits and ties haven’t gone out of fashion in my profession and likely never will. People forgetting about the lawyers as usual.)
There are more words I can go on about here, but I’ll keep this list at just seven, since I think I’ve made my point. A lot of my feelings about most of these and similar words are described in George Orwell’s six guidelines for English writing set out in Politics and the English Language. Wrapping your meaning up in self-consciously fancy language hurts it — at best it makes your writing and speech muddled and confusing and at worst might make people think you’re a self-aggrandizing asshole, which you probably aren’t aiming for. And if you’re writing fiction, you might just end up with something like The Eye of Argon, only probably without most of the unintentionally entertaining badness, which you also probably don’t want. Mixing up your vocabulary is a great way to add spice to your writing, but spice has to be used sparingly, or else it can ruin the dish.
But that’s no excuse for not studying, because you still have to know these god damn words for the SAT. If you still have to take it, good luck, and I know your pain. It only gets worse from here!
General edit — I don’t mean to suggest with any of this that you shouldn’t bother knowing these or similar words, just that it’s best to balance out your writing by not relying on obscure or complex words when common and simple ones will do. Of course, there are always exceptions, and you’ll know these exceptions when they show up, but only if you already have that large vocabulary and plenty of experience in reading and at least some in writing.
In fact, here’s some real advice for approaching the SAT or any other standardized language test: the best way to prepare for these is to read a lot, and over a broad range: journalism, nonfiction, and fiction of various genres all help. Read like crazy for several years on end and you’ll naturally pick up a large vocabulary that will help you not just for your tests but throughout your life (and an advanced tip here: read Herman Melville and you’ll pick up a lot of the more obscure/archaic words right away. Moby Dick is the classic, but also check out White Jacket, far more successful upon publication but now mostly forgotten except by avid readers. Throw in his short story series The Piazza Tales too. He’s still one of my favorites.)
I know that’s not much of an aid for students who have their exams coming up in a few months, though. If that’s your case, just cram as much into your head as you possibly can. Make flash cards or something.
Anyway, that’s my attempt at teaching something useful after several years. I’m not a real academic anyway, just a fraud: a law degree is basically just an extremely expensive trade school certificate without any of the need for writing theses or dissertations. And look, to the students again: if an idiot like me can put together sentences, you certainly can too, so I hope that’s some motivation for you.
1 I know not everyone agrees that a term that’s usually “spelled out” like the SAT (though I have occasionally heard it pronounced like the word “sat”) is classified as an acronym, but that’s what I’m calling it. If I’m going to have a nitpick-anticipating endnote in any post it should be this one.
2 Its informal name. The two “English” sections are broken into Reading and Writing & Language. The test has undergone some changes since I took it in the early 2000s and maybe even since I taught it several years later.