There is a new SAT exam in town, and it’s a major revision. The College Board summarizes the new test this way: “free world-class practice, optional essay, no penalty for guessing,” and — most alarmingly, for retro SAT Verbal fans, “vocab you’ll use long after test day.”

 That fourth feature heralds the death of “bellicose,” “indefatigable,” “niggardly,” and — my personal favorite — “pusillanimous.” The new test promises to test college-bound students only on “important, widely used words and phrases found in texts in many different subjects.” No more using “flashcards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down.” Instead, the SAT will test you on words “you will probably encounter in college or in the workplace long after test day.” The pitch is redolent of phlegmatic benignity, but the contumacious among us may suffer an even more pronounced dearth of jollity.

First they came for the antonyms. Readers of a certain age (roughly 40 and above) will recall these simple questions on the SAT Verbal test that rewarded raw vocab knowledge and were removed from the test in 1994. Something like this oldie, where all you need to do is find the word that means the opposite of the first one. (Keep track of your answers; you’ll score your test at the end):

1. obfuscate:

      A. languish

      B. respond

      C. clarify

      D. cloud

      E. reproach

Got it? The answer depends on your knowing what “obfuscate” means, but if you’re taking the old SAT, you already have a sense. The whole point of the exam was to cast simple ideas in obscure terms. The answer, if you haven’t got it by now, is (C).

More of you will remember, with horror or excitement, the analogies, dot-and-word-strewn questions that disappeared in 2005 when the College Board decided they were culturally discriminatory and revealed little about the test-taker’s academic promise. Here is an easy one:

2. wave : crest : : _________ : peak

  A. water  

  B. top

  C. moving

  D. mountain

For those who need a refresher in the punctuation, the single colon ( : ) should be read as “is to,” while the double colon (: :) means “as.” So the statement above is: “Wave is to crest as _______ is to peak.” In this example, the challenge is one of mere logic without the complicating addition of tough vocabulary. The best way to solve these is by telling a little story about the relationship between the first pair of words so that the missing word quickly becomes clear. So: “A crest is the highest point on a wave; and a peak is the highest point on a ______.” Yes, only “mountain” (D) completes the sentence.

With more difficult vocabulary, the analogies get quite a bit tougher. Try this one:

3. concomitant : accompanying : : __________

     A. loyal : staunch

     B. rough : texture

     C. separate : attached

     D. hard : granite

     E. tanned : leather

To answer this question, you need to know what “concomitant” means. As it happens, though you might not know this, the word is basically a fancier way to say “accompanying” — “con” suggests “with” and “comitant” is like “companion.” So you’re looking for synonyms. Starting from the bottom, in (E) you have an adjective that accurately describes a noun; same for (D). That’s a clue that both are wrong, since the correct answer cannot be a pair of words linked in the same way as another answer’s pair of words. (C) presents you with antonyms, while the first word in (B) gives you one possible type of the second word. Only (A) makes sense; “loyal” and “staunch” are pretty much synonymous: a “loyal” ally and a “staunch” ally are both your dependable friend.

Here’s another fairly hard one:

4. iconoclast : convention : :

     A. tailor : robe

     B. sycophant : love

     C. pariah : friendship

     D. anarchist : government

     E. fireman : safety

Here, the key is knowing what “iconoclast” means and not getting tripped up on “convention” by thinking that it indicates, in this context, a meeting. An iconoclast (literally, a person who smashes icons, or images used in religious worship) is somebody who bucks tradition, or, in other words, refuses to live by convention. Likewise, an anarchist refuses to live under government and doggedly opposes it. So (D) is the answer.  

The New Regime

But all of this is now useless and outmoded. No more exotic words. The new SAT asks you about the meaning of rather quotidian words in context. You’ll encounter a reading passage like this selection from Henry James:

She didn't rise, blushing, as a young girl at Geneva would have done; and yet Winterbourne, conscious that he had been very bold, thought it possible she was offended. "With your mother," he answered very respectfully.

5. In this passage, “conscious” most nearly means:

     A. responsive

     B. informed

     C. aware

     D. watchful

Compared to the old SAT, this is pretty easy. (You should be conscious by now that the answer is C, aware.) For more examples, you can check out the prep guide and sample tests available free at Khan Academy. The new test has definite advantages over the previous incarnation. It seems better tuned to actual learning in actual classrooms — and to success in college, careers, and real life — than selecting words like “abnegation,” “enervate,” and “prurient” for 17-year-olds to master. Yet let’s take this moment to pay homage to these deliciously obscure words, vocabulary that our children and grandchildren may never have occasion to encounter. Not to be maudlin, but let’s mourn the loss of the pulchritude of these words, redoubtable though they may be.


Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.

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