Like many people in this country, when I was in high school, I had to take the SAT. Oh that hefty, terrifying, life-determining monster, the sorting hat for colleges, the most important test I’d ever take. Pick up an SAT prep book and you’ll find any number of helpful techniques, tips to create a savvy test-taker. I didn’t have many of those books. (They’re expensive, people!) But I do recall one technique I learned in my English class.
It was the power of story.
I’m lucky; I’ve always had a pretty good memory. But what makes my memory even better is the addition of meaning. That’s true for everyone. It’s not just me, it’s psychology. (That rhyme was unintentional, I swear.) How we mentally sort and store factual information is different from how we process personal or creative information. And someone at an SAT prep company evidently realized that.
There were two word stories in particular that got stuck in my brain, so I’ll show you how this fun technique works.
In the first story, there’s a letter that arrives at a postal processing center. It’s lacking a full address. It’s simply labeled “A Sid, U.S.” Most people would give up on it. But one particular postal worker dedicates himself to finding the intended recipient for this letter, staying late and going through massive lists of people named Sid. Incredibly hard-working, wouldn’t you say? And how appropriate, since assiduous means hard-working.
The second story is about a woman named Val. Val is very pregnant and, as tends to happen, she goes into labor. She calls an ambulance. They arrive and load her up. They’re about to leave when she tells them not to, that she wants to wait for her husband who’s nearly there. They stay. But moments later (probably when the next contraction hits), Val changes her mind. Get her to the hospital now. But not moments later, she changes her mind again. How can she leave without her husband?
So Val in ambulance = ambivalence. Contrary to popular usage, it’s not a synonym for apathy. It’s easy to see how it can be confusing because both result in indecision, but the indecision from ambivalence is the result of caring too much, not too little, of being torn between opposite concepts instead of not caring. I’ve always remembered that because of this story. Val isn’t apathetic. She’s not all “yeah, whatever, we can go or not.” She’s seriously torn between two options.
They’re silly stories, sure. But they obviously worked, because I remember them even now, a decade and a half later. And it’s a technique that served me well when I later had to face down the SAT’s scarier, older sibling: the GRE.
“Yes okay, that’s all very nice, Halee, but why are you telling us this?”
Because I love words—big, fancy ones, and strange, quirky ones, and I think everyone should have the chance to expand their vocabularies. That’s a good enough reason, right?
Okay, fine. It’s also because there’s a super thin line between sounding educated and sounding pretentious, and I’d rather stay on the less face-punchy side of that line. But I figure, the more people who know and use five-dollar words, the easier it will be for me to use them without sounding pretentious. Yes. I’m selfish like that.
So if you want to expand your vocabulary or impress your friends or just read some quirky little stories, you’ll find me here, every Wednesday for the next few weeks, wielding the power of story like a giant word nerd.