Dictionary editors compile challenging list of words
By Mary Challender
Des Moines Register
You may be well read.
You may even be well spoken.
But unless you can properly use bowdlerize, moiety and ziggurat in a sentence, you're just another literati wannabe in need of a good dictionary, according to the editors of the American Heritage College Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Co., $25)
The fourth edition of the dictionary has recently been released. To drum up business for the book, the editors have culled from its 175,000 terms a list of 100 words they deem all high school graduates should know.
Confident in your command of the English language? There are locutions in this lexicon to test the acumen of us all.
Before you swell with pride because you flashed on the meaning of hubris, see if hegemony or jejune present any similar epiphanies.
Although every Pink Floyd fan knows the evidence is incontrovertible, how many of you are also aware that money, besides being a gas, is pecuniary?
Circumlocution may not be a word that dances across many tongues, youthful or otherwise, but few college term papers would be completed without this practice especially those that specify a word count.
If you're feeling a bit lugubrious about your luminosity right now, take heart. Senior editor Steve Kleinedler acknowledges that the words on the list are not exactly quotidian.
"We set the bar high so people would feel challenged," he said. "Since we're selling a dictionary, we wanted to give people a reason to go to a dictionary and if they don't have a dictionary to go out and get a dictionary."
A fairly small percentage of Americans will ace all 100 terms, Kleinedler estimates. He admits that he was stumped by quotidian, a word that means everyday or commonplace.
That he didn't know the meaning of one of the words on the list didn't bother him, he said. What did bother him was the fact that he'd run across it many times while reading and never bothered to look it up.
Kleinedler says he chose the 100 words with the help of an etymologist and other editors. They wanted to represent a broad range of learning and knowledge. Words like hypotenuse, mitosis and euro do more than test a person's vocabulary. They also demonstrate at least a passing familiarity with subjects such as trigonometry, biology and current and foreign affairs.
Then there's abstemious, a word Kleinedler owns up to liking for a more frivolous reason.
"It has all five vowels in order," he says. "If you make it abstemiously, it has all five vowels and y in order."
Kleinedler says he had a lot of fun working on the list, a statement that a glance through the definitions would tend to belie. From A to F alone are words that mean to renounce, abolish, restrict oneself, picture falsely, deceive by trickery, be boorish, be evasive, have a harmful effect, lack self-confidence, weaken, censor, be smug and foolish, and be feeble and ineffective.
"I don't know whether to be disturbed by that or not," Kleinedler muses. "Maybe that's because all the fun words are the bad ones."
One thing to keep in mind is that the list is not intended as a Cliffs Notes guide to literacy just cram the words and be done. The goal of the 100 words is to inculcate a love of words in people and to encourage them to expand their vocabulary through reading and study.
"We could have easily chosen a different set of 100 words," Kleinedler says. "If you're able to use these 100 words correctly and know what they mean, it's an indication you have a pretty good command of the English language. If you know these 100 words, you'd know most other sets of 100 words we could probably pick out."
Whatever you do, just don't make the mistake of saying you feel enervated by such intellectual discussion.
Unless, of course, thinking hard actually does destroy your strength and vitality.