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A Plethora of Words

posted: 10.7.14 by Steve Bernhardt

Reading sets of first-year essays typically offers teachers some curious insights into the minds of new college students. For several terms, I’ve found myself wondering about the word plethora. It’s of Greek origin, meaning fullness, and it has a specialized medical meaning related to profusion, or excess blood. It’s also a word that turns up more frequently than I would expect in the writings of more than a few of my students. I can only speculate why.

Perhaps it’s a favorite word for vocabulary lists in high school English classes, or perhaps it appears in test preparation programs for the SAT verbal. It’s one of those words that is attractive to students, and easy to spell, but difficult to use. When I encounter the word, I am typically brought up short, thinking “That’s not quite the right way to use the word—the collocation is slightly off.” But I let it go. I can’t teach students the subtle nuances that make a word fit the context, and I’d rather concentrate on important aspects of their writing the students can control. Besides, if the student uses the word, he or she is likely to attend to it in various reading contexts. I am sure that command of vocabulary comes from encountering words in context, not from memorizing lists or definitions.

The lists that circulate for test prep always contain some odd choices, including slightly archaic or literary terms. I just pulled a list off the Web that has terms such as resplendent, epistolary, acrophobia, obsequious, pontificate, and histrionic. Useful? Maybe. Certainly interesting to those who like words. I didn’t mean to choose multisyllabic Latinate terms, but that pretty much describes this quick pick list.

We might think instead about more useful vocabulary, in college and beyond. Math demands control of such terms (or concepts) as random, distribution, normal, exponential, dependent variable, or regression. Scientific terminology is increasingly essential to both scientists and non-scientists: phenotype, homeostasis, cell transport, metabolism, ecotonic, resistance, neutrino.

I suspect many of us could do more in our comp classes to push students into disciplinary forums where they would exercise specialized academic vocabulary. I’ve posted here about several of my approaches, including an assignment on student debt that pushes students toward business and finance, researched papers that put students inside their majors, and final exams that have students prepare for essay exams in their other courses. There surely exists a plethora of assignments that create opportunities for students to write in their disciplines, and in the process, to develop a professional vocabulary.

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