“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
I vividly remember a seventh-grade English teacher telling our class, with great solemnity, “Small minds use big words.”
For years, this guided my writing.
Until I figured out how wrong, how profoundly wrong, she had been.
And that’s why I’m so concerned about the new SAT’s approach to vocabulary—namely cutting “obscure” and “arcane” words. According to the Times, “The SAT’s rarefied vocabulary challenges will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, like ‘empirical’ and ‘synthesis.’”
Over the last 25 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that maximizing the words at one’s disposal is indispensable for two reasons.
First, words enable us to explain, and an infinitely complex world requires an expansive vocabulary so we can be clear and precise.
Jane Austen is known for her extensive vocabulary, which can cause eye rolling: “blowsy,” “solicitude,” “diffident,” “abstruse,” and “licentiousness.”
But as I read her books, dictionary always nearby, I found that every single time she used an unfamiliar word, it was because that word was exactly right; it captured the nuance she intended to convey.
For example, in one famous case, she might’ve used “shy” but chose “diffident” instead.