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100 Words

The editors of the American Heritage dictionary recently compiled a list of "100 words they recommend every high school graduate should know."

I always like to check out lists like this, and see how many of the entries I am already familiar with. The answer is, invariably, "nearly all of them." Not because I have a stellar vocabulary, but because I cheat.

Not on purpose, of course. But, when performing this exercise, I'm always struck with "well that's what I meant" syndrome. You know how it goes. You see the word, you say to yourself "that means X," you check the definition, and when it turns out that it actually meant Y, you say, "ah, well, that's I meant. And, jeeze, X and Y are practically the same thing ... so, I'm going to give myself this one." By the time I'm done, I have magnanimously "given" myself all of them, and have no idea how many I actually knew before I started.

So this time I tried something new: I wrote down my definitions first, and then compared them to the actual definitions afterwards. You can see the results in the comments.

If you'd like to do the same, here's a little tool I wrote. First, select how many words from the American Heritage list you'd like to get tested on. (I wouldn't recommend 100--that took me forever--but 23 is good.) You will then be given the opportunity to provide your definitions for each. You can then grade yourself, in comparison to the actual meanings. Lastly, the script will print out a final report, which you can then put in the comments of this psot on your own site. (Apparently Movable Type strips tables from comments, so posting 'em here ain't gonna work after all.)

By providing your own definitions first, you should get a somewhat more accurate picture of how many of the words you could truly use correctly in a sentence. But if you just want to grade yourself without providing your own definitions first, you can do that instead. Whatever. We aim to please.

How many words?

You can find my results here (but, if you intend to test yourself, don't look until you have done so, as the definitions of the words appear on that page).

Posted on July 02, 2007 to Tools and Toys


Wow, I found the American Heritage definitions unnecessarily wordy and complicated. I chose 20 and got 17 right. The other three, well, I know what they mean, I just couldn't define them very well.

Posted by: Beth on July 2, 2007 2:56 PM

Fun! 18 of 25 - I was trying for speed, but I agree with Beth. I also had trouble articulating some words that I think I really do understand but for some reason couldn't explain. Thanks!

Posted by: Lisa on July 2, 2007 3:56 PM

True some definitions are quite long, but when you're being official, you need to be thorough.
Got 43 out of 50. Being dutch, I think that's pretty good. The other 7 were mostly relared to specific fields.

I think the list contains some peculiar words, ones that aren't really important. I don't think i'll ever use "suffragist" in a sentence. ever.

Raise your hands, everyone who has ever used the words Suffragist, jejune, loquacious or moieti.

Posted by: Alcari on July 2, 2007 4:42 PM

49 of 75

Some words are easier to envision than describe. Like metamorphosis, and chromosome.

Posted by: Tomas on July 2, 2007 4:52 PM

"Yakko, can you conjugate?"

"I've never even kissed a girl!"

Posted by: Mike on July 2, 2007 6:57 PM

Hey now, there, Alcari --- my grandma was a jejune suffragist, heady and naive, dedicating all her young strength to the movement, until a moeity of gin and the wrong man turned her into loquacious drunk, babbling her troubles to all she encountered. Had a great second career as a blues lyricist, though.

22 of 25, for myself. Turns out I really don't know the meaning of inculcate, thought I thought my tautology and abstemious were foul tips rather than whiffs.

Posted by: Diablevert on July 2, 2007 7:04 PM

20 of 25. And I thought the test was biased towards the sciences, specifically molecular biology.

I've used "loquacious."

Also, I thought Matthew was a little hard on himself in the grading. I would have given him points for "bowdlerized", "fatuous", "inculcate", "precipitous", and "tautology."

Posted by: halcyon on July 2, 2007 7:36 PM

Blargh! 18 of 30? Apparently I need the crutch of multiple choice.

Anyone else bothered by the use of "wrought" in its own definition? Also, anyone else actually define a word's antonyms? Multiple times?

Posted by: Josh on July 2, 2007 7:46 PM

Methinks they should have made the list 101 words every high school graduate should know and added "pretentious."

Posted by: albie on July 2, 2007 8:06 PM

I may have known 22 out of 25 (and two of those three wrong ones were definitely "that's what I meant"), but I did NOT know how to write that script that helped me learn. Thanks.

Posted by: braine on July 2, 2007 8:07 PM

Pretentious: to know that bellicose comes from bellum (Latin for war) and pecuniary comes from pecunia (Latin for cha-ching).

Posted by: louis on July 2, 2007 10:33 PM

48 of 50. The definitions I wrote out were very brief and cryptic. No wrong definitions; if I didn't know, I didn't try to make up a definition. Moeity and quotidian have not been in MY lexicon. I think it will likely remain so.

Posted by: mick on July 3, 2007 1:35 AM

Awesome man. Duly linked.

Posted by: db on July 3, 2007 3:53 AM

Bored at work, I decided I didn't like the rules of the game. Here are the definitions that could be:

Abjure: To injure your abs by working out beyond your means and ability.
Abstemious: A hernia so bad it is visible, stemming from an abjure.
Antebellum: People who had no life before the existence of Art Bell?s paranormal-themed radio show Coast to Coast AM.
Chicanery: Looking cool with a cane. Few can pull it off.
Churlish: Acting childish in church, even going so far as to make blasphemous comments during a sermon. Most often performed by those that have no desire to be in church, but have been drug there by friends/family/wedding.
Enfranchise: To act like a high-roller in a bar by enquiring to the bartender as to whether or not the owners have ever considered selling the establishment.
Epiphany: A brilliant discovery or idea made while online, usually forgotten or discarded before the next webpage is surfed.
Fatuous: A vegan that, for some reason, continues to put on weight regardless of healthy diet consumed.
Feckless: A Scottish person that no longer curses.
Fiduciary: A person you entrust with your baby, a rusty 1984 Fiat Uno, even though it would have no value if totaled.
Filibuster: A Blockbuster rental that goes and goes and goes incredibly longer than expected, typically three hours or more.
Hubris: The guest list for a baby?s circumcision.
Inculcate: The inability of Incubus fans to articulate a sentence.
Infrastructure: The foundation of rules in a marriage that are not discussed, but implied and understood.
Loquacious: A way to describe a person that continually talks and talks to the point that you can no longer remember the origin of the conversation.
Nihilism: Acting haughty to the point that you sound like the Crane brothers on Frazier.
Notarize: To make a bar or pub smoke-free.
Orthography: The study of bumps around celebrity mouths in Proactiv infomercials.
Photosynthesis: A Photoshopped picture that looks so real, you need to check its origin at snopes.com.
Plasma: A purchase you can no longer justify after having a child.
Polymer: A cheap, useless piece of clothing given as an unfortunate gift on a very special occasion. Also spelled Polymurr or Polymaror.
Respiration: The current situation in Dubai, where architects and developers continue to builder taller, higher and wackier than the next building.
Tautology: The study of Brook Burke?s stomach. How has she had three kids?
Thermodynamics: The powerful heat produced against your body from a sleeping baby.
Ziggurat: Somebody overcome by Ziggy cartoons in their cubicle. Can also be Cathied, Familycircufied or Dilbertised.

Posted by: JMT on July 3, 2007 6:37 AM

15-25...man, that hurts. Friekin' quasar. Friekin' gamete.

Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' on July 3, 2007 7:46 AM

Hmmm. Well, technically I got 44 out of 50. But it depends on what you mean by "did you know the definition of X?" I knew that hemoglobin and plasma were elements of blood; I didn't go into detail on the nature of its iron or its yellow liquidy essence. I wrote that "tectonic" related to the earth's plates, rather than the earth's crust--but clearly I knew what the word WAS. I said kinetic had to to with energy rather than motion, but I know the word and how to use it correctly. The two that I got most wrong were "fiduciary," because I went with "related to finance" rather than "held in trust," and "jejune," because I went with "bored" rather than "not interesting, dull," even thought those are pretty close.

So, all in all, I think I did OK.

Posted by: Karen on July 3, 2007 8:16 AM

Anyone else get any science fiction vibes from this list?

The only place I've ever seen the word "moiety" is in Heinlein's "Citizen of the Galaxy" - my favorite of his juveniles. The main character spends some time living in a ship of a Family, in which a visiting anthopologist explains the careful delineations of moiety within the shipboard society.

And the word "hegemony" is strongly associated in my mind with "Ender's Game" and its sequels, and it's also prominent in "Hyperion."

And then there are the words xenophobe, metamorphosis, nanotechnology, vortex...

Maybe someone at American Heritage is a science fiction fan.

Posted by: Lynn on July 3, 2007 8:48 AM

"Hegemony" also features prominently in in "Citizen of the Galaxy" - as in the Terran Hegemonic Guard. Also "Dune" comes to mind. I just don't think I've seen the word outside of science fiction.

Posted by: lynn on July 3, 2007 8:58 AM

Pretentious: to know that bellicose comes from bellum (Latin for war) and pecuniary comes from pecunia (Latin for cha-ching) for the purpose of telling others as much at a cocktail party.

Fixed, Louis!

Posted by: CC on July 3, 2007 9:55 AM

22 of my 25.
I agree that you were a little hard on yourself for some, particularly "inculcate."

But on the other hand, I wouldn't have given you "parabola," since I don't think bells are ever parabolic and the bell curve of statistics and science is a Gaussian.

And you defined equinox as perihelion/aphelion, which it isn't.

Posted by: Klaas on July 3, 2007 9:57 AM

so - did you take the reader's digest vocabulary test? every issue listed 20 words and 4 possible answers. I almost always fell in the 18-20 range correct.

Posted by: bob on July 3, 2007 10:01 AM

I did quite well, but then again I work on my vocabulary on a regular basis.

Posted by: Jack on July 3, 2007 11:11 AM

The fewer Latinate words you use in a sentence, the better.

Posted by: Saxon on July 3, 2007 11:31 AM

Also, I thought Matthew was a little hard on himself in the grading. I would have given him points for "bowdlerized", "fatuous", "inculcate", "precipitous", and "tautology."

I made the same mistake he did on precipitous and I didn't give it to myself, even though I also put "as in a cliff" in my definition. I was thinking that the primary using was to do with haste or immediacy, and that the precipice comparison was metaphorical, not central.

He definitely shouldn't get credit for tautology. A tautology is most emphatically *not* a logical fallacy (as a circular argument would be).

Formally, it is a logical statement that is always "true" independent of the truth of its component claims.

Informally (more common) it means a statement that is trivially true or redundant. Not a falsehood but a zero information truth.

If a statement is false or even *could be* false, it cannot be a tautology. That's the common misconception. Matthew correctly calls this a subtle but profound difference.

People pick up this incorrect definition because they see arguments where one side accuses the other of offering a "tautology". What they mean (if they are using it correctly) is that this supposed new salvo in the argument is vacuous and adds nothing to previous claims, not that it is incorrect.

Posted by: Michael E. Sullivan on July 3, 2007 12:28 PM

I got "tautology" wrong exactly the same way. Is there another, formal logic term for that kind of circular reasoning?

But I wouldn't have given Matthew a point for "tempestuous". Perhaps one day we can discuss it... over tea.

Posted by: Simone on July 3, 2007 1:29 PM

This was a fun exercise. I think Matthew was both too hard and too lenient on himself. Admittedly, I was, too.

I was surprised by the list - way too "fancy big word" and "science crap I hardly bothered to learn the first time" for me. Though I can't imagine bothering to distill the OED into 100.

A few I know I get wrong on a regular basis - learning it wrong (is there such a thing?) the first time catches me up, e.g., on 'diffident'. I always envision it being said with a toss of the hair, so it comes to my brain as confident, rather than lacking.

ah well

Posted by: Alyce on July 3, 2007 4:17 PM

I got 15 out of 20, which was worse than I had expected. Why the hell would I know what a quasar is, though? I also confused precipitous with propitious (with a little providential thrown in). Otherwise though, I thought some of the words were sort of silly, almost too easy. Like omnipotent and totalitarian. I'm a vocab nerd who uses words like these every day, though, so I'm probably biased.

Than again, I have yet to graduate high school, so ha! I have another year to bring my score up :).

Posted by: Margaret on July 3, 2007 5:58 PM

I knew 18 of 25. But some - ahem, many - were accompanied by comments like:

That was mostly right.
Ok, so not technically.
Close enough.
ok, ...by a stretch.
Does it count if I thought this answer, but gave another?
Totally counting it.

I did get 10 completely right. The rest, ...not so much.

Posted by: Dawn on July 3, 2007 8:15 PM

Shocking how so many of those words that I wouldn't as much as stumble over in context, I have no idea how to "define" when faced with just a blank page. My granddad always said that if you can't explain something to someone else, then you don't really understand it yourself. I know less than I thought, for sure.

Posted by: Belinda on July 4, 2007 10:19 AM

Josh wrote: Anyone else bothered by the use of "wrought" in its own definition? Also, anyone else actually define a word's antonyms? Multiple times?

I was at first, but then I realized the sentence was meant as an example, not a definition.

I got 50/100. Quite a few words I knew but didn't write out definitions for. Like, I new them to well to define them. Like, see the word "reciprocal", put concept in my head, put concept into words... and what I get is the original word. I knew the words, but couldn't think of an alternative way to say what they mean. But, it's words a high school graduate should know, not words they should be able to write out definitions for. So those very much count.

I don't think for words it's necessarily true that if you can't explain the word to someone, you don't understand the word. Also not true for, say, how to treat others, how to get along socially. In other words, I think that's only true in a certain area, and word definitions do not always fall into that. And being at a loss for words for how to define "reciprocal" does not mean I don't understand it.

Posted by: Ellen Kozisek on July 4, 2007 10:58 AM

Totalitarian: USA! USA! USA!

Posted by: mvb on July 4, 2007 11:46 AM

This was really fun, and I loved the scripts you wrote for it. You could expand this and sell it to high school students studying for the SAT...

Posted by: rachel on July 5, 2007 8:43 AM

I did great on the vocabulary part, but I completely flunked the honesty part.

Posted by: Robert Cockerham on July 5, 2007 9:52 AM

63/100--damn, and I was an English major, too. To be fair, I had a vague idea of what a quasar and a deciduous plant are, but it's not like I could define it very well. Of course, that's completely cancelled by the fact that I only know what "enervate" means because of Harry Potter. *sigh*

Posted by: Manders on July 5, 2007 7:49 PM

I posted this to alt.usage.english, by the way. (My score was too low to share.)

Posted by: Sara on July 6, 2007 4:06 PM

Thanks for the great application. I, too, give myself much higher scores than I usually deserve by saying "yeah, that's mostly it..."

I scored 20 out of 25. As a writer and English major, I think I should be embarrassed? As a former English teacher, however, let me tell you that most students don't have the knowledge of these words. But, you knew that.

Like an above poster, most of my vocabulary is from reading, and I'm amazed at how my contextual gleaning is often wrong, or at least sideways-enough to be mostly wrong.

Posted by: Leah on July 11, 2007 2:45 PM

Well, I got 76 out of 100. It was fun looking at so many weird words, and I found out that some words I truly thought I knew, I didn't. So that's good. I'm going to get my friends to take this now...I bet I beat them.

Posted by: Jennifer on July 12, 2007 5:18 AM