As yet another child of mine looks towards taking the SATs, my mind shoots in the direction of vocabulary. I’m not a big-word person. I prefer to make my point in simple sentences. Maybe it has to do with raising children and directing them through the maze of good and bad behavior, but I think kids, and people, respond better to a simpler vocabulary. There’s no question in my mind that the phrase, “that’s no good,” used hundreds of times a day when our children were little, works a lot better than, “your activities here will have a detrimental effect on your immediate surroundings and will guarantee you confinement on the upper level of our abode.” Believe me, maybe that child would have scored a perfect SAT years later if I had talked like that. But the little boy ready to throw the Hot Wheels car across the room would never have waited for me to spit that out, and I would have been assessing the ding in the wall or the fast-growing bump on a brother’s head.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate big or unusual words when they really serve to make a point. I like a challenging crossword puzzle and know that having a broad vocabulary will absolutely help kids do well in school and on those oh-so-important SATs. But knowing the words and using them in everyday life are two different things.
I wrote a paper in college and, in an effort to jazz it up, I sat with a Thesaurus and looked up what I thought were some good substitute words. Instead of “fancy,” I decided to use the word “rococo,” having no idea I was suddenly talking about an 18th-century European style of art and architecture. I felt pretty good about my paper until I got it back with a stinging comment in the margin. Of course, I neither knew the word “rococo” nor understood how to use it, so I deserved being called out.
A few years ago, I helped another son memorize vocabulary for the SATs. Over and over, we practiced. We laughed over a lot of the words and how they would never make it into everyday conversation, especially when we got to the word, “jingoism.” Or so we thought. How would a person work that into a discussion? A few weeks later, to our disbelief, we heard a well-known sports analyst slip it into a debate he was having with another well-known analyst…for effect. But the analyst was not even close to talking about extreme patriotism, especially in the form of aggressive or warlike foreign policy. He was using the word to impress. And we caught it! I’m not sure jingoism came up on the SATs that year, but it didn’t matter. The result? Word definition permanently etched.
As for me speaking rococo, ever again, don’t count on it, but that doesn’t rule out using it on the Scrabble board!
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