Growing vocabulary, one word a dayWritten by Barbara Goodman Shovers | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s that time of year when American high school juniors and seniors are sharpening their No. 2 pencils in preparation for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. Whether the SAT can predict students’ abilities to succeed in college is up for grabs, but for more than 50 years, this Saturday morning ordeal has been a necessary evil on the road to higher education.
In addition to the traditional math and verbal sections, the test was recently rejiggered to include a writing component. According to articles I’ve read, this should not be interpreted as an onerous development: it apparently doesn’t matter what students write as long as they write lots of it. In America, dare I say, the appearance of saying something trumps the accuracy or logic of what’s actually said. Perhaps that’s the reason the SAT, according to the above-noted articles, rewards length over coherence. So remember, kids: when you get to the essay part, don’t waste time thinking, just start your pencils and keep scribbling.
On the math and verbal sections, however, I understand accuracy still counts. Because I’ve never been much of a math jock, I can’t give any numbers advice past boning up on quadratic equations and word problems. But as an individual who once scored a 790 verbal, here’s my two-word tip on that section: Anu Garg.
Anu Garg is not a mouthful of nonsense syllables. It’s the name of the man who runs the A.Word.A.Day Web site (www.wordsmith.org/awad/). Back in 1994, when Anu was a computer science student at Case Western in Cleveland, the word bug bit him. As a lark, he started e-mailing friends vocabulary he found particularly appealing — his first message, he remembers, included the word ”zephyr,” (a soft wind which blows in frequently on SAT analogies.)
Over time, news of Anu’s fetish grew, and since he had the programming skills to scale it, he added friends of friends, then friends of friends of friends to his distribution list. After Case, he took a real job but found he preferred scouring dictionaries to slaving in high tech. AWAD became his real job, one that now has more than 600,000 ”customers” in 200-plus countries.
Anu is not a word snob. In conversation, he uses simple language. He likes words because he thinks they are, among other adjectives, ”interesting” and ”fascinating.” His recent themes have included insults, eponyms (word derived from people’s names), words relating to the Bible, eating, colors and Italian landmarks. He has, he says, no favorite word.
I became familiar with AWAD at a friend’s house. Each morning my friend prints Anu’s selection and posts it on the refrigerator and bathroom mirror for his teenaged sons to see. It may be coincidence, but their PSATs scores were through the roof.
What’s particularly amazing about Anu’s story is that he grew up in India. English is his second language. He didn’t start learning it until he was 12. But over time, he got hooked. Words, he says, are like food. He likes their textures and looks and the way they taste differently mixed on a plate with others. Words for Anu are not the stuff of alphabetical memorize — this lists of suffixes and prefixes. They are organic playmates with lives of their own.
Anu’s second book, ”Another Word A Day,” will be released later this month. I haven’t seen it, but it’s probably a hoot. Anu doesn’t just define words, he tells stories with them.
The book might be a good gift for a high school grad, but to make sure he or she goes someplace great after commencement, consider subscribing your student to Anu’s mailing list now. It’s free at www.wordsmith.org.
There are no guarantees Anu’s idiosyncratic word choices will vault students nearer the holy 2,400 grail (the new essay section adds 800 points) but free is a lot cheaper than a cram course. And remember: zephyr is to delicate as gale is to fierce.
Barbara Goodman Shovers may be contacted at email@example.com.