The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"I used to think I was poor.  Then they told me I wasn't poor, I was needy.  Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy.  I was deprived.  (Oh not deprived but rather underprivileged.)  Then they told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged.  I still don't have a dime.  But I have a great vocabulary."... ...Jules Pfeiffer.

Commentary of the Day - July 8, 2003:  The Veracity of Vocabulary - Guest commentary by Marilyn D. Davis.

My overly sophisticated high school junior just completed a year in which his English teacher required the students to memorize a list of 180 vocabulary words and their definitions.  A test was given on the first group of thirty words last October; students have been tested throughout the remainder of the year at six-week intervals.  Each test was cumulative (increasing or enlarging by successive addition), so I found myself becoming more and more adroit (dexterous; deft) at holding an ever-expanding pack of blue (the hue of that portion of the visible spectrum lying between green and indigo) index cards as I quizzed Dan the night before.

Some of the words - like "hedonism," "juxtapose," and yes, "irascible" - are used regularly in everyday life, thus having a reasonable amount of applicability in the real world of communication.  Others, such as "antediluvian," "fecund," and "surfeit" I view as less practical, since I don't use them and, to my knowledge, neither do rap singers Eminem or Lil' Kim.

The interesting part of this learning process was that I found Dan beginning to incorporate the words into his conversations with me.  I wondered if this was one of the teacher's goals.

Mom, cut the histrionics.
Nothing personal, but I think you are becoming a dotard.
How dare you treat your progeny this way!
That outfit is mega-ostentatious.
If you prevent me from doing what the other kids are doing, I'll be a pariah!
Do you want that?  Huh?  Huh!?!
I shot back with a few gems of my own.
Whatever happened to my little, cherubic son?
Don't disparage your younger brother like that.
Why can't you be more obsequious?
This contentious behavior has got to go.
Could you be any less intractable?
Stop equivocating and tell me exactly where you're planning to take the car
Occasionally, Dan would use one of the words in the correct context, but blow it by emphasizing the wrong syllable or messing up the intonation.  Partial erudition has its drawbacks.  (Little did he know that I was a "vouchsafe" virgin until my first exposure to his flash cards.)

I suppose the objectives for this vocabulary lesson are appropriate.  I can agree to the importance of my son understanding when he's being flippant or hanging out with a bad coterie.  And I also believe that later in life, he may actually need to know what these words mean, should he decide to pick up a piece of literature written at a level higher than that of TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly.

My only qualm is that this exercise in rote learning may not have achieved its goal, since the tests required him to match words with definitions, rather than use them in sentences.  However, he shared what I consider to be evidence of real learning: the words he recently memorized now jump out at him whenever he's reading.  This phenomenon is true for many of us after we learn a new word - we see it everywhere, hear it on the radio, and cannot imagine how we could have slept peacefully at night without knowing the difference between, for instance, latitude and lassitude.

When I asked Dan about the benefit of studying all these words, he laughed and said he enjoyed insulting people without their realizing it.  He gave the example of having told a friend that she looked " corpulent today," and her response was, "Thanks!"

As a member of the school newspaper staff, Dan has started to use his newly acquired words in his writing.  I picked up the most recent issue and, without reading the byline on an article, knew immediately who wrote this headline: Summer offers plethora of concert events.

I think the validity of the list would not be impugned if next year, the teacher swaps one from among the plethora of p-words with another equally essential vocabulary word that is sorely lacking in usage by teenagers.  Please?

© 2003, Marilyn D. Davis
Marilyn D. Davis works in community college administration and lives near Chicago.  She is also a freelance writer whose main web site is

The IP comments:  In today's "dumbed-down" K-12 environment the building of vocabulary skills often is deemed unimportant.  However, a student who has developed a good working vocabulary has a distinct advantage when he or she reaches college.  Kudos to Dan's teacher for taking the time to help students learn those words that are more likely to be read than heard.

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