The Treasure of Our Tongue

W e best learn the meanings of words by their context. Yet Charles Harrington Elster, known to San Diegans for his five-year stint on the KPBS radio program A Way with Words, recalls a lesson that emerged after a talk he gave to youngsters on learning vocabulary. "A mother in the audience told me," he says, "'I don't need a dictionary because I can figure out the meaning of a new word from context.' So I asked her to explain the meaning of the word 'enervated' from the following sentence: 'After her exciting night on the town, she felt enervated.' The woman said it means 'stimulated' or 'worked-up.' But it means the opposite. The mistake comes from what I call the 'sounds-alike syndrome.'"

Elster bemoans people's habit of "reading around words. It's a very detrimental habit," he says. "Not all contexts are clear. I teach you to look for unfamiliar words and look them up as you read. My vocabulary-building books [for taking the college-entrance SAT and ACT exams] make that easier by boldfacing the test words and putting the dictionary inside the book."

The vocabulary books Elster is talking about are novels. In 1994 he published Tooth and Nail: A Novel Approach to the New SAT. His second, A Test of Time: A Novel Approach to the SAT and ACT, appeared last spring. Elster calls it "a comic time-travel adventure" in which Mark Twain visits a New England college of today a year before publishing Huckleberry Finn.

On Tuesday, January 25, Elster will give a talk at the Mission Hills Branch Library called "Reflections on the Treasure of Our Tongue." Afterward he will sign copies of his vocabulary books and other works, including Verbal Advantage and The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations.

Elster says he began writing about words in the 1980s after Andy Kay of Kaypro Computers asked him to work on an interactive vocabulary-building program. "It was based on the work of an aptitude tester and researcher named Johnson O'Connor, who had theories on vocabulary and its relation to your career development," explains Elster.

"Meanwhile, a buddy from college had been developing curricula for a big test-prep company. One time we were bemoaning the fact that there was nothing but tedious lists of words with definitions and sample sentences on the shelf for young people to study and use as vocabulary-building tools to prepare for the college-entrance tests. We thought, 'That's boring...there must be another way, a novel approach,' and the lightbulb went on."

For test-taking strategies, Elster recommends tools other than his books. "I'm not an expert on the tests or test-taking," he says, though he does call the ACT (used by Midwestern colleges) more knowledge-based than the SAT, which puts emphasis on skills. Originally, SAT stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test and ACT for American College Test. Today both of the tests go exclusively by their acronyms.

Elster contrasts his "novel" approach to a series done by publisher Simon and Schuster that uses books from the public domain. "Their gimmick is to boldface and define words in 19th-century classics, like Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. Nineteenth-century writing is littered with SAT words. But to today's teenage reader, 19th-century literature is like a foreign language. The average kid is quite impatient with it."

I ask Elster if he forced his fiction to display the vocabulary he wanted. "Sometimes I tried to use specific words because they needed to be in there. But more often I would write a section and go back to boldface them. I've been living with these words so long that I tend to think with them."

Elster made sure to get the most frequently used words into his novels. But he also included "extra credit" words, such as "squalid," "impecunious," "respite," "puerile," "stentorian," and "legerdemain." "Some of the hardest words that people think are typical SAT words occur very infrequently," says Elster. "The core of the SAT and ACT is based on standard high school vocabulary -- words like 'indifferent,' 'vivid,' 'clarify,' and 'lucid' -- middlebrow words. If you don't know them, though, you're going to bomb the tests."

In his talk in Mission Hills, Elster will focus on the "polyglot element" in English and neologism. In the "art of word making, the champion was Shakespeare, who made up 8.5 percent of his vocabulary," he says.

Elster is fond of words based on Greek locations, such as "Arcadian" and "Laodicean," which today means "lukewarm in matters of religion." "Laodicea was a city of ancient Asia Minor that was infamous among Christians for its lip service to the Lord," says Elster.

Southern Californians tend to be interested in Spanish contributions to English, which many take to be of recent origin. "But it's astonishing how far back the contribution goes," says Elster. "The word 'stevedore' preceded 'longshoreman' and came from Spanish. By 1600, English had acquired from Spanish 'chocolate,' 'vanilla,' 'alligator,' 'anchovy,' 'banana,' 'cannibal,' 'cocoa,' 'hurricane,' 'potato,' 'sassafras,' and 'sombrero.'" -- Joe Deegan

Charles Harrington Elster "Reflections on the Treasure of Our Tongue" Mission Hills Branch Library Tuesday, January 25 7 p.m. 925 W. Washington Street Cost: Free Info: 619-692-4910

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