Elegy for lost verbiage

A crowd of difficult words will vanish from America’s SAT tests in 2016. We join them for their farewell party


As he brushed his recalcitrant hair and tried to pick an accretion of egg from his best tie, Joe wondered by what aberration he had been included in this gathering. He was not a demagogue, despot, gourmand, insurgent, reprobate or virtuoso. Indeed, he was almost their antithesis: a humble shoemaker who banged in the tacks with acumen and alacrity, and with a punctilious regard for setting soles straight. His life was ascetic, his politics nonpartisan. His predilection was for all that was staid, stolid and utilitarian. Hapless, he stared at the vestige of the egg, which for some reason he could not dispel, emend, expunge, expurgate or palliate, only exacerbate; and sighed.

Mendacious, Egregious, Obstreperous and Multifarious would certainly be at the party, with many other scurrilous and garrulous types. Together they would denigrate and vituperate those who, in times of sobriety, they would toady up to in the most emollient way. Joe always went under duress to such gratuitous displays of duplicity and turpitude. They were such anathema to him, in fact, that he went a long way to circumvent them. He could be convivial enough over a Budweiser or two when camaraderie was called for. Now he felt penurious, even inane. He took one last look at his swarthy, abject, mawkish face in the mirror, and went to catch the bus.

No dearth of debacle

This was not, he knew, a gathering to cajole, carouse or cavort, let alone a licentious debauch. Instead, it was a rather maudlin occasion, at which a dirge might well be sung and a knell tolled. The guests were there to mark their disappearance from the consciousness of most American schoolchildren, who would no longer be exhorted and admonished to remember the lot of them for their sat exams, and upbraided when they couldn’t. For it was an incontrovertible fact that these onerous, grandiloquent, idio­syncratic words were the bane of many young lives, inimical to summer and fun. Instead of indulging the serendipity of youth, fishing, swimming and hitting balls through windows, pupils were subjugated to the dogmatic and arbitrary yoke of spending days with dictionaries.

The venue, when he got there, was a seething morass of platitude, plenitude, plaudits, cupidity, invective, surfeit, tirade and circumlocution, all of which, though meant to beguile, tended rather to enervate and obfuscate. Joe could not spot Probity or Veracity, much less Pulchritude. A proclivity to corpulence was the order of the day. The buffet, accordingly, was a picture of largesse, both munificent and eclectic. Though this might be the nadir of their collective days, there was no fear of atrophy here. He annexed a salmon blini and connived with the waitress to get a cup of coffee on the side. Then he did his best to cleave the crowd, but found himself—typically—consigned to a corner where he did not impinge on the company. Once again, ostracism made him a pariah. He did not think that Ms Wanton, with her adamant stare, negligent tailoring and disaffected pout, would accost him there. But he was wrong.

“And what do you do?” she purred at him by way of blandishment, while relegating a carrot stick to the pot plant and, with impressive legerdemain, flicking a canapé into her mouth.

“I make shoes,” he replied, with a bashful smile. 
“How quaint!” she exclaimed. “But then why are you one of us?”

“Perhaps because he’s anachronistic, arcane and antediluvian,” said Fortuitous, butting in. 
“Or fatuous,” added Vociferous, loudly passing with a plate of carp.

“Even extraneous!” cried a fourth.

Joe, however, took only a modicum of umbrage. For suddenly the main doors had opened; and an amorphous, though winsome, figure appeared there. She wore a dress so diaphanous, pellucid, evanescent and ephemeral that it was hardly there at all; more an intimation of a zephyr.

He found it tricky to remain phlegmatic. Especially as, at the same moment, noxious smoke began to circumscribe the hall, and the bombastic, ebullient chatter of the crowd gave way to a preponderance of screaming. Some puerile guest had thrown his cigar into the faux-sateen curtains.

Joe’s hour had come. Impetuous, redoubtable and sanguine (though fully cognisant of looming disaster), he seized the damsel’s hand. Exit was exigent. She was not apathetic, or obdurate, or truculent, but surprisingly amenable. Together they raced down the nearest conduit to the street. Behind them, a maelstrom of flame became a conflagration. Ubiquitous grey ash poured from the sky. But as they paused, at last, to recover their breath, all that seemed quite tangential.

“I’ve never met anyone”, she whispered, “so solicitous and 

“Then I’ll bet”, he said, beginning to realise how pert and lovely she was, “you’ve never met a cobbler before.”

You are reading a small selection of content from The World in 2018.
To read all the articles in this year’s edition download The Economist app.
Download 'The World In 2018 iOS app'
Download 'The World In 2018 Android app'