Need to Know

Updating an elementary lexicon

By Cullen Murphy

--> ast year the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary released the long-awaited fourth edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary, and to mark the occasion they compiled a list titled "100 Words That Every High School Graduate Should Know." A senior editor of the dictionary, Steven Kleinedler, explained, "This list is a benchmark against which graduates—and those long out of high school—can measure themselves. If you are able to use these words correctly, you are likely to have a superior command of the language." The words have been printed on a poster, and I've had it taped to my wall for several months now.

In some ways the list is a curious one. A number of the words clearly draw on recent news (euro, reparation, impeach), but it isn't always clear why certain others were deemed urgent enough to make the cut (facetious, gauche, sanguine). There are numerous words involving science (gamete, kinetic, quasar), politics (enfranchise, gerrymander, loquacious), and publishing (bowdlerize, expurgate, plagiarize), but none involving religion (except nonsectarian). Lexicon is on the list, presumably ex officio.

The editors emphasize that the hundred words "are not meant to be exhaustive" (you'll definitely need a few others to get by), but I recently tried to describe current events with mainly the arsenal provided, and did surprisingly well. Corporate malfeasance was easy to conjure: "Fiduciary nihilism wrought incontrovertible pecuniary chicanery." The prospect of a war with Iraq by winter's end was not difficult to convey: "Before equinox, near ziggurat, omnipotent laissez-faire hegemony subjugates bellicose totalitarian." Even the saga of Trent Lott proved more or less manageable: "Unctuous hubris recapitulates antebellum paradigm in churlish kowtow to filibuster oligarchy."

The American Heritage list is something of a throwback. The first English lexicons were not zoological collections of all the specimens in a language but, rather, lists of especially hard words for the educated classes. They were the literary analogue of the manuals of behavior for young people of noble rank—a genre that runs from the medieval "Mirror of Princes" through George Washington's famous "Rules of Civility" to the vast prescriptive-pamphleteering industry of our own era.

"What Every American Needs to Know" was the subtitle of Cultural Literacy (1987), a work that has now been through several best-selling versions. Here, in a few hundred pages, E. D. Hirsch Jr. and his disciples sought to establish an entire taxonomy of core knowledge—the thousands of dates, names, facts, ideas, and expressions that an educated person can't be seen without: 1066, 1914, Tolstoy, Ellison, Giotto, Jack Sprat, "In the beginning," flapper, uncertainty principle, zeitgeist.

Hirsch certainly knew his zeitgeist. Troll the Web for a few minutes and you'll quickly appreciate how vast a terrain "need to know" has become—far more extensive than any one person could ever hope to explore. "What every man needs to know about sex addiction and relationships." "What every librarian needs to know about the USA Patriot Act." "What every veterinarian needs to know about hamsters." "What every certified accountant needs to know about money laundering." "What every Muslim needs to know about Ramadan." "What every American needs to know about Hillary Rodham Clinton."

I must admit I hadn't previously been aware of what every parent needs to know about children and stress. ("Empower kids, even if it means giving them a misting bottle turned 'monster repellent' to spray under their beds.") Nor had I been aware of numerous other things, such as what every investor needs to know about doing business in Vietnam: "Do not accept a 'trust me' or 'no problem' in lieu of having the terms of the agreement clearly and unequivocally documented." Or what every lawyer needs to know about prenuptial agreements: "Advise against springing the agreement on the other party." Or what every Christian needs to know about sexual temptation: "The Bible has one basic remedy for sexual temptation: flee."

After a day of such stuff I came to appreciate the advice offered on a page devoted to what every freshman needs to know about high school: "Just don't worry about things. It won't help." Frankly, this need-to-know business is a little out of control. E. D. Hirsch's publisher ought to suggest that his next book be called You Don't Wanna Know, devoted to the thousands of things Americans would be wise to ignore (Chapter 1: Restaurant Kitchens; Chapter 2: The Operating Room ...).

But words are a special case. By way of disclosure, I should note that I am a member of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. This means that several times a year I am asked to weigh in on ballot questions circulated by the editors, such as whether the accent in harassment should fall on the first or the second syllable (the first), whether convince and persuade are interchangeable (they're not), and whether transitive verbs can be used intransitively, without direct objects, as in "the Mets amaze" or "the movie excites" (please, no; the trend dismays).

But I had nothing to do with the list of a hundred words that every high school graduate should know. Indeed, had I been asked, I would have lobbied strongly for the inclusion of a number of words—words that, though hardly out of circulation, embody underappreciated concepts. The editors might consider deleting ten words of relatively minor consequence (say, circumnavigate, diffident, incognito, moiety, notarize, parameter, polymer, vehement, winnow, and yeoman) to make room for ten others that deserve universal currency.

because (conjunction, preposition): The basic unit of causality, to the ancients and to parents. Despite "advances" by scientists and philosophers, it remains the most satisfactory answer to the question "Why?"

blowback (noun): In social policy, foreign affairs, and daily life, the insidious reality that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and that good intentions harbor the seeds of their undoing.

cost (noun): The inescapable element of all economic and social transactions; an expenditure sometimes hidden and often overlooked (as in Woody Allen: "I've never paid for sex in my life." "Oh, you just think you haven't").

enough (noun, adjective): A quantity of indeterminate size, capable of expansion but not contraction, and measurable only in retrospect; the basic building block of excess. "You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough"—William Blake.

good-bye (interjection): A word generally uttered, whether by private individuals or public figures, sometime after it should have been.

guilt (noun): Still part of the culture's ambient noise; the underlying legitimacy of the idea—not to mention its utility—has been eroded by mental-health professionals, despite opposition from mothers.

no (noun): A stance of enduring practical consequence, albeit ridiculed in recent years for its application to campaigns against drug abuse and premature sexual activity. The astonishing power of negative thinking continually proves ripe for rediscovery.

queue (noun, verb): A line of waiting people; to wait in line (patiently). An advance on the "hunter-gatherer" social construct, queue-based societies have lately given way to an "intruder-grabber" model.

silence (noun): In the developed world, a phenomenon confined to smaller and smaller tracts of habitat, which conservationists hope, forlornly, to connect by means of something akin to wildlife corridors. "The problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of silence"—Aldous Huxley.

you (pronoun): The other; not the self. (Obsolete.)

That makes ten. I'd add one more, inspired by George W. Bush, who has himself made important contributions to the language (embetter, misunderestimate). But the comedian Will Ferrell, in the role of President Bush, gave us dignitude ("As President, George W. Bush carried himself with great dignitude"). Dignitude is a blend of dignity and attitude; with a sort of surfer-dude gravitas, it manages the remarkable feat of puffing out its chest while not taking itself seriously. More dignitude is what America needs, and if we have to throw out vacuous or supercilious to make room, then so be it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/need-to-know/302690/