Posting Date: June 29, 2003
100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know -- "The editors of the American Heritage® dictionaries have compiled a list of 100 words they recommend every high school graduate should know."
So why didn't they hyperlink the words in the on-line press release to an on-line dictionary?
Because then there'd be no reason to buy the book.
As it is easy to look up the words in an on-line dictionary, it might have been more effective not to give all the words in the press release.
"100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know... That Only 5% of English Speakers Understand"
OK, so how many high school graduates do know them? And why do they need to? There are some pretty well-read people on Webword, and many of them are good writers. But when was the last time any of you needed to use moiety, gamete or antebellum?
There are some pretty peculiar choices there. I consider myself a well-read person with an extraordinary vocabulary, but I myself have never once uttered the word "unctuous" and I prefer "slimy."
One of the principles of effective communication is to never use an obscure word where a common one will suffice. There are definitely times when precision demands it, but mostly we are deluged with verbiage.
Also, what the hell kind of scam are they pulling where they publish a book of 100 words with definitions? Is it like a scaled-back dictionary? A seriously abridged version?
As a college English teacher who regularly teaches students who are fresh from high school, I thought I'd throw in my $.02.
Since this is a website dedicated to usability, I can certainly agree with bbrown's point: "One of the principles of effective communication is to never use an obscure word where a common one will suffice."
But... a poet who is trying to communiate an obscure thought may require an obscure word -- sometimes the most efficient way to communicate an emotion is through an uncommon word.
And even if you yourself never use obscure words, you might run into other people who do -- a politician or a marketer may use a complex sounding word as a scare tactic; or a student might be asked to read a text written in another culture (a specialist audience, a different geographical or era or time period) in which certain words that are obscure to most people are commonly known.
Of course, the real purpose of the list is to make intelligent people gulp and say, "I don't know some of these words... I guess I'd better buy a dictionary from the fine people at American Heritage."
If I were to use such a list in a class, it wouldn't be becaue I think these 100 words have particular significance -- it would be to help my students get into the habit of using a dictionary.
Dennis, do you have a view on how many of these words your typical student might know?
There's a whole discipline in the education profession to answer a question like that... I wish I had time to investigate it more fully.
About a third of the words on this list are ones that I'd feel comfortable using in a lecture or assignment at the beginning of term. I would probably expect the average student to be able to read and understand (but not necessarily define) another third. For instance, words like "paradigm" and "parameter" have specific meanings in some disciplines, for instance, but in most everyday writing those terms, if used, are applied so generally that they carry hardly any meaning, and unfamiliarity with those terms may cause fatigue but won't otherwise hamper communication too seriously.
Of course, students who have taken more advanced science courses will know more of the science terms, and so forth. Since I have 20 to 30 students from all different backgrounds in my freshman comp course, I can't really assume any specialized knowledge. So, while two students sitting next to each other might each know 60 words, they might only know 45 words in common. The more students there are in a room, the smaller that core will be.