Awash in Words

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, January 28, 2007

One of the great traditions and cultural hallmarks of Western civilization is reading in the bathroom. In my house, this has taken on a dramatic new element with the acquisition of a shower curtain filled with 500 common SAT words. Santa Claus brought it as a lovely Christmas present for a teenager who understands that her societal worth and the honor of her family hinge entirely on her SAT score.

The shower curtain gives very brief definitions of the kinds of use-at-your-risk words that appear only on standardized tests. The vocabulary in our house is, I can proudly report, effervescing. And yet, despite my strict policy of avoiding arguments with inanimate objects (exception: CD wrapping), I find myself getting highly annoyed with the shower curtain.

For one thing, the curtain is sometimes flat-out wrong. For example, "elude" is defined as a verb meaning "hard to pin down." No, seems to me that the definition needed there is "to avoid capture." "Hard to pin down" is the definition of "elusive," which is an adjective. (There's nothing like catching an error on a shower curtain to make a person feel smarter.)

I also can't accept "total forgetfulness" as the definition of "oblivion." That's more like "the condition of being totally forgotten," what we know here in Washington as "Dukakis Country."

But what's most irksome about the curtain is not the glitch here and there. The real problem is the underlying attitude toward words. The definitions are short, drab, dull. They are boxed mac and cheese, they're Velveeta, they're unsalted Ritz crackers. They lack the full flavor and aroma of the language as it is used in the real world. In some cases, the shower curtain might help you score a correct answer on a standardized test, but I'm not sure it will help anyone speak or write English.

"Beget" is defined as "to give birth to" without any notation that no one has used the word "beget" in 2,000 years.

"Amorous" is defined as "feeling loving." But doesn't the word usually imply a certain (why isn't this on the shower curtain?) concupiscence? Ditto with "consummate," whose yawn-inducing definition, "to bring to completion," misses the wide-open opportunity for a gratuitous sexual reference.

"Evanescent" is plausibly defined as "fleeting," but surely something that is evanescent is more beguiling, more entrancing than something that, you know, fleets.

"Manifesto" is defined as "a public declaration." But without the note of politics, dissent, obstreperousness and stale Marxist-Leninist dogma, that definition could describe someone standing on a milk crate declaring that he's president of Venus.

Dogmatic, we're told, means "making statements without argument or evidence." But to my ear it means "sticking to received doctrine and refusing to entertain alternate theories even when it is clear that you're not about to ignite a wildfire of democracy across the globe."

"Euphemism" is defined as "a figure of speech by which a phrase less offensive is substituted," which misses the important element of deceit (i.e., "revenue" instead of "tax").

"Exasperate" is defined as "to excite great anger." What about the part where the person who is exasperated puts her hands on her hips and huffs loudly? As defined, you could say, "And then I was charged by an exasperated grizzly."

The word "peccadillo" is described as a "trivial, minor offense," as though it's a parking ticket. Where's the hint of sin? The slight note of shagging the pool boy?

"Hackney" is defined as a verb meaning "to make stale; trite." I'm sorry, but this is my turf, my beat, my specialty. The adjective "hackneyed" is useful, but I'm pretty sure you have to be way above my pay grade to use "hackney" as a verb.

"Unctuous" is "oily." No more info given. You see here the problem with synonyms: Treating the words as identical can lead, potentially, to verbal disaster ("Do you have any shampoo for unctuous hair?").

But even as I rant at the shower curtain, I know I'll lose the argument. This is because the shower curtain is not educational, but functional. It is providing test answers. This is all the educational system requires anymore. We had the Baby Boom generation, Generation X, Generation Y, and now we have the Will This Be on the Test Generation.

The curtain's definitions are, I'm sorry to say, perfunctory, attenuated and unpunctilious.

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