09 August 2014

Just what makes vocabulary “arcane?”

Here’s one to add to the “critical thinking” lack-of-definition phenomenon.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’ve been following the news of the SAT overhaul pretty closely; suffice it to say that I’ve read quite a few articles about it lately. In doing so, however, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon: virtually every article I’ve encountered has included the line that the new SAT will eliminate “arcane” words. The authors of these articles almost invariably use the word “arcane.” I’ve seen one or two authors put it in quotes, implying an ironic or skeptical understanding of the term, but the use it with the literary equivalent of a straight face.

The SAT, of course, is distinctly partial to the word arcane, along with synonyms abstruse, archaic, esoteric and recondite. (Admittedly, recondite is a tad, uh, recondite, but I’d say the other two are pretty common.)

So the logical question: is the word “arcane” arcane?

The fact that journalists have no problem using the word arcane in mainstream publications would seem to imply that it is not actually arcane.

It is of course, hard to talk about a concept without referring to it directly, but think of it this way:

If you look at, say, The New York Times, you do not see sentences like this: Beginning in 2016, the SAT will no longer test really big and weird words that normal people don’t use.

Journalists do not write like that because that is not how educated adults write, and it is not what educated adults expect to read in publications intended for them. Educated adults expect to see words like arcane — common words that indicate a reasonable level of verbal acuity and sophistication.

An interesting question, though, is whether journalists have bothered to investigate which words are commonly tested on the SAT.That, however, would require them to have an interest in facts, and when it comes to discussions of the SAT in the mainstream media, facts are for all intents and purposes irrelevant. (If anyone bothered to look at a recent SAT, they would undoubtedly notice that passages are already drawn from history and the sciences. Or perhaps they’d just ignore that fact and focus on the sole fiction passage.)

Presumably, the journalists do not actually know that the word arcane is tested on the SAT, and that people consider it, well, arcane. If asked whether sixteen year-olds should know it, they would almost certainly answer in the affirmative.

The alternative would require quite a feat of doublethink — arguing that a word is irrelevant by using the word itself, apparently without noticing (or remarking on) the irony.

I recently reread 1984 for a book club I occasionally attend, and it’s hard not to see echoes of Newspeak in the idea that students’ vocabularies should be reduced to a narrow set of STEM career-friendly words. (Note: evidence presented in an “empirical” manner isn’t necessarily reliable; data can be distorted in all sorts of ways.) I don’t usually subscribe to conspiracy theory mentality, but it’s hard to not to see a parallel here. The fewer words you know, the smaller the number of texts you can access, and the smaller the range of ideas you can be exposed to in a meaningful way. (Studies have shown that readers must know at least 90% of the words in a text in order to understand it; anything less, and they can’t accurately infer the meanings of unfamiliar words or phrases).

Words are not merely collections of letters — they stand for concepts, some of which are quite challenging. My students already have a staggeringly difficult time with words like nuance — they are so accustomed to having things in presented in black-and-white terms that the very concept of discussing gray areas is foreign to them. Studying the kind of vocabulary tested on the SAT is not just about learning big words; it’s about gaining exposure to new ideas.

But back to the question at hand: what, exactly, makes a word arcane?

The fact that an average sixteen year-old does not use it on a daily basis?

The fact that a low-level STEM career isn’t likely to require it?

The fact that it includes more than three syllables?

Would anyone care to offer a suggestion?

Leave a Reply