Your Verbal, Mental, and Material Wealth

Vol. 42 No. 1

By

Bryan A. Garner is the president of LawProse Inc. (www.lawprose.org). He is the author of many widely used books, including Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (with Justice Antonin Scalia) Garner’s Modern American Usage, and The Elements of Legal Style. Since 1994, he has been the editor in chief of all editions of Black’s Law Dictionary.

With that thought in mind, let’s take some words of general interest and see how well you know them. I’ve selected some terms that O’Connor used in testing audiences, favoring ones that might be of some use to lawyers. Each of the terms listed was known to no more than 20 percent of 25-year-old test-takers in 1948, meaning that only the best-educated people would have been expected to know them. That statistic has probably remained fairly stable.

Please take the full test before checking the answers. Fully commit yourself to an answer so that you’ll have a reliable score: don’t hedge your bets, and guess if you must.

By the way, these words have been used a good deal in post-1900 caselaw. I’ve given the actual number (as gauged by the Westlaw “Allcases” database) in brackets at the end of each question.

1. AMANUENSIS /uh-man-yoo-EN-sis/: Does this word mean (a) butler; (b) treatise; (c) secretarial scrivener; or (d) a summing up? [417 cases]

2. APPURTENANT /uh-PUHRT-[uh]-nuhnt/: Does this word mean (a) appertaining, belonging; (b) appropriated; (c) misappropriated; or (d) perpendicular? [10K+ cases]

3. A PRIORI /ah pree-OHR-ee/: Does this word mean (a) selective; (b) having priority; (c) philosophical; or (d) from cause to effect, or known to unknown? [2,383 cases]

4. CASUISTRY /KAZH-[yuh]-wis-tree/: Does this word mean (a) intellectual cheating through oversubtle reasoning; (b) acid-like remarks; (c) bitter feelings; or (d) burning, corrosion? [674 cases]

5. DESULTORY /DEZ-uhl-tohr-ee/: Does this word mean (a) contemptuous; (b) rambling, unsystematic; (c) bounding with great leaps; or (d) cleansed of sodium chloride? [1,514 cases]

6. DISINTERESTED: Does this word mean (a) indifferent, unconcerned; (b) apathetic, bored; (c) selfish; or (d) impartial? [10K+ cases]

7. EXIGENCY /EK-si-juhn-see/: Does this word mean (a) perplexity, trouble; (b) blunder, error; (c) emergency, pressing necessity; or (d) strict insistence? [10K+ cases]

8. FACTITIOUS /fak-TISH-uhs/: Does this word mean (a) elaborately artificial; (b) factual; (c) counterfactual; or (d) consisting of factoids. [694 cases]

9. FLUVIAL /FLOO-vee-uhl/: Does this word mean (a) volcanic; (b) sedimentary; (c) of or relating to natural streams of water; or (d) overtalkative? [73 cases]

10. INEFFICACIOUS /in-eff-i-KAY-shuhs/: Does this word mean (a) not effective; (b) harmless; (c) insulting; or (d) harmful? [949 cases]

11. INFERENCE /IN-fruhnts/: Does this word mean (a) deduction, conclusion; (b) suggestion; (c) roundabout insult; or (d) the space inside a circle? [10K+ cases]

12. LICENTIATE /lye-SEN-shee-uht/: Does this word mean (a) a licensing office; (b) a salacious person, libertine; (c) a license-holder; or (d) freethinker? [326 cases]

13. MENDACIOUS /men-DAY-shuhs/: Does this word mean (a) poverty-stricken; (b) beggarly; (c) lying, deceitful; or (d) tending to make right? [417 cases]

14. MOIETY /MOY-uh-tee/: Does this word mean (a) modicum; (b) the greater part; (c) sadness, opposite of gaiety; or (d) half? [3,070 cases]

15. MUNIFICENCE /myoo-NIF-i-suhns/: Does this word mean (a) generosity, bountifulness; (b) meaning, significance; (c) grandeur, splendor; or (d) vastness, hugeness? [189 cases]

16. NONAGE /NON-ij/: Does this word mean (a) minority, the underage period of life; (b) old age; (c) outcasts collectively; or (d) nomadic tribes collectively? [610 cases]

17. OBLOQUY /OB-luh-kwee/: Does this word mean (a) abusive reproach, opprobrium; (b) degeneration; (c) the condition of being perpendicular; or (d) continuation? [1,822 cases]

18. POIGNANT /POYN-yunt/: Does this word mean (a) pointed; (b) intensely moving; (c) weighty; or (d) pungent, sharp to the taste? [1,405 cases]

19. POLITY /POL-i-tee/: Does this word mean (a) pact, treaty; (b) good manners; (c) a form or method of government; or (d) sanctimoniousness? [1,751 cases]

20. PRECEPT /PREE-sept/: Does this word mean (a) teacher’s monitor; (b) instruction, teaching; (c) precaution; or (d) oracle? [10K+ cases]

21. PROPOUND /pruh-POWND/: Does this word mean (a) to propose, put forward for consideration; (b) to develop; (c) to explain; or (d) to fit in as a component part? [10K+ cases]

22. QUIZZICAL /KWIZ-i-kuhl/: Does this word mean (a) of or relating to a short test; (b) of or relating to a traitor; (c) puzzling, teasing, bantering; or (d) uncertain? [137 cases]

23. RATIOCINATION /rash-ee-oh-si-NAY-shuhn/: Does this word mean (a) the act of making up elaborate excuses; (b) logical thinking, rumination; (c) comparison; or (d) wishful thinking? [401 cases]

24. SIMONY /SYE-muh-nee/: Does this word mean (a) a method of counterfeiting coinage; (b) simulation; (c) bribery to obtain an ecclesiastical appointment; or (d) stealth? [20 cases]

25. SYLLOGISM /SIL-uh-jiz-uhm/: Does this word mean (a) likeness; (b) a comparison of two things using the word like; (c) the pretentious use of difficult words; or (d) a logical form of argument consisting of two premises and a conclusion. [3,473 cases]

26. TEMPORIZE /TEM-puh-ryze/: Does this word mean (a) to procrastinate or delay; (b) to speak impromptu; (c) to soften; or (d) to harden? [472 cases]

27. TERGIVERSATION /turh-ji-vuhr-SAY-shuhn/: Does this word mean (a) evasion, equivocation; (b) bloated, inflated language; (c) conversation; or (d) the cleaning of office files? [147 cases]

28. UNWONTED /un-WUHNT-id/: Does this word mean (a) unwelcome; (b) unexpected; (c) not habitual; or (d) having little control over physical desires? [89 cases]

29. VICISSITUDES /vi-SIS-i-tyoodz/: Does this word mean (a) ups and downs, changes from one condition to another; (b) complexities, complications; (c) flattering phrases; or (d) dangers? [2,975 cases]

30. VITIATE /VISH-ee-ayt/: Does this word mean (a) to cleanse, render pristine; (b) to corrupt, render faulty; (c) to explain at length; or (d) to avoid direct responses? [10K+ cases]

Below you’ll find the answers. But first, a word in your ear: if you haven’t scored well, you might be tempted to dismiss the quiz as impossibly difficult—and dismiss most of these words as ridiculously arcane (or recondite, as one might put it). Not so. There’s not a single item on the list that can’t be found in the speech of a refined, erudite English speaker. You’ve probably heard and read—and perhaps ignored—every word that you’ve missed here if you’ve paid attention in college lectures and if you’ve read at all widely.

Many people stop worrying about vocabulary once they’ve taken the SAT and LSAT because they won’t be formally tested again. That’s no reason to quit. Become a word-collector: learn new words and savor them.

You need a much bigger vocabulary than you’ll actually use. Just knowing more words will make you a faster and better reader. To this end, you might work with a vocabulary-building book. My two favorites are perennially popular books: Wilfred Funk & Norman Lewis, 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary (rev. ed. 1970) and Maxwell Nurnberg & Morris Rosenblum, How to Build a Better Vocabulary (1983). Subscribe to one or more of the word-of-the-day services; there are many, and I offer one on Twitter (@bryanagarner). You can also find many WOTD desk calendars at your local bookstore.

Ultimately, you’ll want to learn such wonderfully useful words as mumpsimus (one who persists in error even after correction) and ultracrepidarian (one who opines about matters that the person knows little or nothing about). But here’s the hard part: generally, you should abstain from using words that your readers and listeners won’t recognize. The idea isn’t to show off, but rather to better understand what you’re reading and hearing.

Keep in mind what Hirsch notes in his article: “Vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts.” He makes a socioeconomic point: “If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is in the language-arts classroom.”

Since you’re well past the language-arts classroom, you’d be well advised to start a program of self-study. 

ANSWERS

All the following percentages are based on Johnson O’Connor’s statistics reported in the three-volume set English Vocabulary Builder (1948).

1. (c): 28% of the 25-year-old test-takers mistakenly thought the word meant “a summing up.”

2. (a): 27% mistakenly thought the word meant “appropriated.”

3. (d): 19% mistakenly thought the word meant “selective.”

4. (a): 37% mistakenly thought the word meant “bitter feelings.”

5. (b): 27% mistakenly thought the word meant “contemptuous.”

6. (d): 29% mistakenly thought the word meant “inattentive”; another 21% mistakenly thought the word meant “bored.” The word interest here historically means “financial interest,” not “intellectual interest”—so a disinterested judge is one with no personal stake in the decision.

7. (c): 22% blunderingly thought the word meant “blunder”; another 16% mistakenly thought the word meant “difficulty.”

8. (a): 27% mistakenly thought the word meant “factual.”

9. (c): 37% mistakenly thought the word meant “volcanic.”

10. (a): 23% mistakenly thought the word meant “insulting”; another 22% mistakenly thought the word meant “harmful.”

11. (a): 72% mistakenly thought the word meant “suggestion.”

12. (c): 20% mistakenly thought the word meant “freethinker”; another 15% mistakenly thought the word meant “libertine.”

13. (c): 48% mistakenly thought the word meant “beggarly,” through false association with mendicant.

14. (d): 33% mistakenly thought the word meant “the greater part.” You’ll encounter this word not just in Shakespeare but also in family-law cases, especially those predating 1950.

15. (a): 34% mistakenly thought the word meant “grandeur”; another 26% mistakenly thought the word meant “meaning.”

16. (a): 29% mistakenly thought the word meant “outcasts”; another 24% mistakenly thought the word meant “old age.”

17. (a): 19% mistakenly thought the word meant “degeneration.”

18. (b): 29% mistakenly thought the word meant “weighty.”

19. (c): 66% mistakenly thought the word meant “pact.”

20. (b): 36% mistakenly thought the word meant “precaution.”

21. (a): 31% mistakenly thought the word meant “develop.”

22. (c): O’Connor gave no statistics for this word.

23. (b): 33% mistakenly thought the word meant “comparison”; another 16% mistakenly thought the word meant “wishful thinking.”

24. (c): 31% mistakenly thought the word meant “counterfeit methods”; another 25% mistakenly thought the word meant “stealth.”

25. (d): 27% mistakenly thought the word meant “likeness”; another 15% mistakenly thought the word meant “simile.”

26. (a): 32% mistakenly thought the word meant “soften”; another 14% mistakenly thought the word meant “harden.”

27. (a): 21% mistakenly thought the word meant “conversation.”

28. (c): 45% mistakenly thought the word meant “unexpected”; another 41% mistakenly guessed that the word meant “unwelcome.”

29. (a): 36% mistakenly thought the word meant “dangers”; another 32% mistakenly thought the word meant “complexities.”

30. (b): 59% mistakenly thought the word meant “to cleanse.” The term vitiate appears frequently in legal contexts.

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