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Did you get the Zoolander reference? Awesome.

However, your chuckle is cut short by that sad sight in front of you, that tower of test prep books stacked high on your desk, screaming deadlines at you. Ha, as if we ever had time to memorize new words for the SAT. Vocabulary lists were the stuff of elementary school spelling bees, hung by ladybug magnets on refrigerator doors at a time when all we did was learn new words.

Now? Well, now it’s like this: by the time standardized tests come ‘round, either you know the words, or you don’t. Flashcards won’t do any good, except maybe to fan away the beads of nervous sweat on your brow. How do they expect us to know such obscure jargon? Somehow we’re still learning new words every day, though we haven’t seen a vocab list in English class since… forever. Now, we absorb definitions by recognizing words in a variety of contexts. In other words, we read.

Ever find yourself throwing an unfamiliar term into one of your everyday comments, just because it “felt right” to use it there? You’ve probably seen that word once or twice before. You never took the time to look it up in a dusty dictionary, but unconsciously you developed a gut feeling for it. At the very least, you’ve figured out whether the word holds a positive or negative connotation, which actually tells you a lot.

My father emailed me this article about vocabulary accumulation, because y’know, he’s one of those dads who shoots off educational emails like a trigger-happy cowboy. Boom. It was written by this guy I’ve never heard of, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation and teaches at the University of Virginia. Still, he caught my attention with some damn smart opinions. “The fastest way to gain a large vocabulary,” he argues, is through “present[ing] new words in familiar contexts, thereby enabling the student to make correct meaning-guesses unconsciously.” So I put his theory to the test.

I randomly picked an SAT vocab term, “obdurate,” and tried to construct its definition by reading five different sentences that included the term. Try it yourself:

  • Despite the defendant’s apology, the judge was obdurate and gave him a thirty-year sentence.
  • Sometimes, you are too obdurate for your own good!
  • Although the hurricane was rapidly coming their way, the townspeople were obdurate and did not leave their homes.
  • Even though his fellow teammates urged him to accept the new coach, the star basketball player remained obdurate and refused to follow the coach’s directions.
  • Obdurate and quick to judge, the detective believed every suspect was guilty.

From the first sentence, I suppose that “obdurate” could be “mean.” The second sentence initially gives me nothing… Wait! Negative connotation. That helps. The townspeople of the third sentence are (stupidly) stubborn. Still feeling “stubborn” vibes from the fourth sentence. And by the fifth sentence: “quick to judge” and stays that way… Obdurate definitely means stubborn, perhaps specific to stupid decision-making.
Sure enough, “obdurate” is an adjective that describes the quality of stubbornly refusing to change one’s opinion or course of action, especially in a case of one’s own wrongdoing.

And I told myself, “DAMN this is easy; why don’t they teach us stuff like this in school?!?!?” With a helpful hand from Google Search, I hit up websites like Your Dictionary Sentences and Words In A Sentence; in another five minutes, I had picked up even more words, like remuneration, bilk, crepuscular, and lachrymose (which I did sort of recognize from the Latin word for “tears,” so HA! Latin is still useful).

The good news? Last-minute vocabulary accumulation is not a lost cause! No longer will long vocab lists and funky mnemonics weigh you down. Set aside 15 minutes, in both your mornings and evenings, and you can easily learn 10 new words every day.

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