100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know

“The words we suggest,” says senior editor Steven Kleinedler, “are not meant to be exhaustive but are a benchmark against which graduates and their parents can measure themselves. If you are able to use these words correctly, you are likely to have a superior command of the language.” —100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know (Houghton Mifflin Books)

Hmm… the editors’ description of the list is very different from the way it’s being marketed. Simply knowing the definition of these words won’t suddenly make you more intelligent.

Someone who doesn’t know words like “euro” or “suffragist” probably has other important gaps in his or her education. Most citizens probably get through their days without much chance of encountering “moiety” or “ziggurat.”

All these words are in my reading vocabulary, but I don’t believe I have ever used “abjure” or “abrogate” in a written or spoken sentence, and I wouldn’t have been able to explain the difference if I hadn’t looked it up just now. Because I never took French, I would never use “gauche” in speech (even though I finally know how to pronounce it, since I just looked it up now), unless perhaps I was creating dialogue for a character who either 1) knew French well enough to be influenced by its vocabulary or 2) wanted people to think that he or she was the kind of cultured person who was used to being around people who dropped French terms. I would have described “jejune” as “immature” or “dull,” rather than recognize its Latin root as meaning “meager” or “hungry,” or its more technical sense as “lacking nutritious value.” I sort of recognized “quotidian” as meaning something like “average” or “typical,” but until just now, I never recognized the Latin roots that make its specific meaning “everyday.”

In the second line of King Lear, Gloucester says:

It did always seem so to us: but now, in the

division of the kingdom, it appears not which of

the dukes he values most; for equalities are so

weighed, that curiosity in neither can make choice

of either’s moiety.

That certainly gives sufficient context to guess that “moiety” means something like “division” or “share,” though its more precise definition — “half” — is less clear. (The very first line in the play indicates the choice is between two dukes — Albany and Cornwall.)

Publishers want to sell dictionaries, but the skill of being able to figure out a workable definition of a word based on its context is actually more important to literacy than the ability to memorize words on a list.