High Frequency Words

Susan Daitch


The Barron's SAT box sits on our kitchen table, neglected, despite our intentions to barge through it every morning at ever increasing speeds as the days tick by: twenty, fifty, seventy-five words a day. A person or a committee at the Barron's offices in Hauppauge, New York (population 20,882, average age 42.5, median income $97,214, way mostly white) has selected these five hundred words out of the approximately 1,013,913 words in common English usage. These are the five hundred thoroughbred racehorse words, the high frequencies found most often on the college entrance exams, the SATS. What does SAT stand for? The truth is no one knows. But why these words? Who decides? Who sits at a desk in a small town on Long Island and honors atrophy with a place in the blue and yellow-orange box, but anthropomorphic is turned over and over, and finally the sample sentence, In Animal Farm the anthropomorphic pig suppresses his homicidal impulses, failed to impress, and a line was drawn through anthropomorphic. Definitions found on one face of the cards are the standard dictionary explications, but the sentences printed just below the standard definition which are meant to present an example of how the particular word is used, these must be written by someone, and the sentences are revealing about the writer(s) in devious ways. Usually these kinds of assignments are jobbed out to a freelancer who might only make a dollar or less a word, and so he or she must work quickly to make the task worth the effort. Certain words in the sample sentences appear with some frequency which makes me think the writer is a vegan Christian interested in the American Civil Rights movement. 

We will relegate meat-eaters to the dustbin of evolution.

Christmas has become far too commercialized.

Those censorious of Rosa Parks are remembered with shame.


Let X = X

As with Scrabble tiles, not all letters are created equal, but their value is, in fact, the reverse of the value ascribed to letters in Scrabble. Even a cursory glance at the two lists reveals that a letter which has a high value in Scrabble is a second-class citizen in the Barron's box. The 8 point Scrabble X has not a single representative among the golden five hundred, while the A which in Scrabble is worth a paltry single point and there are many of them (9 tiles), is the first letter of 56 words in Barron's, more populous than any other letter, as if the person doing the anointing got tired after A, went out for a cigarette or coffee break, and figured he or she was never going to break the median income for the average household in Hauppauge, Long Island, and so what if the remaining 444 words are chosen according to a more random system. The pay is the same. It's worthwhile to note the ranking isn't absolutely ironclad. There are some exceptions to the data, but in general, large numbers of tiles of low points in Scrabble indicate a letter is common, while rarity is honored with a high score. With the SAT, another kind of game, rarity hints at linguistic obscurity, a letter rarely in first place among English words, therefore, why bother?



SAT                                                       Scrabble

Words per Letter                                 Number of tiles and points per letter

A: 56                                                     A: 9 tiles, 1 point

B: 10                                                     B: 2 tiles, 3 points

C: 46                                                     C: 2 tiles, 3 points

D: 55                                                     D: 4 tiles, 2 points

E: 52                                                     E: 12 tiles, 1 point

F: 16                                                      F: 2 tiles, 4 points

G: 9                                                       G: 3 tiles, 2 points

H: 11                                                     H: 2 tiles, 4 points

I: 51                                                       I: 9 tiles, 1 point

J: 2                                                        J: 1 tile, 8 points

K: 2                                                       K: 1 tile, 5 points

L: 13                                                      L: 4 tiles, 1 point

M: 16                                                     M: 2 tiles, 3 points

N: 9                                                       N: 6 tiles, 1 point

O: 15                                                     O: 8 tiles, 1 point

P: 46                                                     P: 2 tiles, 3 points

Q: 6                                                       Q: 1 tile, 10 points

R: 35                                                     R: 6 tiles, 1 point

S: 30                                                     S: 4 tiles, 1 point

T: 12                                                     T: 6 tiles, 1 point

U: 5                                                      U: 4 tiles, 1 point

V: 10                                                    V: 2 tiles, 4 points

W: 1                                                     W: 2 tiles, 4 points

X: 0                                                      X: 1 tile, 8 points

Y: 0                                                      Y: 2 tiles, 4 points

Z: 1                                                       Z: 1 tile, 10 points


2:00 Appointment

The sample sentence writer dreams of the five hundred, and ticks the letters off as they're completed. Since she has no insurance, she's sitting in a clinic's waiting room with a chronic migraine headache. Blank cards fill her pockets because time is money, and she can't stop working, even here where the long wait at the clinic represents time to be utilized. A girl of test-taking age sits to her left, her leg in a cast, covered with the names of her friends and classmates who dot their eyes with flowers and smiley faces. The man to her right has a tattoo of shark jaws on his elbows, so when fist meets shoulder, the fish bites, and he strikes up a conversation with the girl, talking across the sample sentence writer, as if she weren't there, making it impossible to concentrate on her work. The waiting room is crowded, and there is no empty chair to move to. The sample sentence writer caps her pen and stares at a benign abstract painting, a classic waiting room painting, of scattered shapes: tangles of blue lines, razor wire, tumbling like tumbling tumble weed across the canvas, a shaky house-like icon, a bowling pin shape, a possibly humanoid form, though limbless, that she takes to be the resident of the house icon fleeing through the razor wire, looking for comfort in the cumulous mass in an upper corner which, if you look closely, you can make out another bowling pin-like figure. Here is a visual language, as if cuneiform and hieroglyphics have yet to be invented, and so these symbols, begging for interpretation, race across the surface of the canvas. The bowling pin couple search for one another, threatened by the razor wire screeches. All shapes are slanted as if blown by a strong gust. The shark jaw man is called into the back of the clinic. Finally, silence. She pulls out the M words, M the exact middle of the box. 


The Story of M

A malicious mercenary and his unit, spurred on by the exigencies of their own materialism were methodical and meticulous as they stalked the property. Their mission was to eliminate the leader of an underground network that was known to be subverting and sabotaging authority in the small but oil rich fiefdom. The man was said to be a misanthrope, but clearly this was a misnomer. In order to run a hidden system charged with serious disruption, he needed a network of support, and he was not miserly in the remuneration he provided to his devoted followers who risked their lives to join his cause. Yet to those close to him, the man was a tyrant. One would think he wanted to mitigate the suffering of others, that was how he advertised himself, in so far as he was able to do so, but in reality, he was not a munificent soul. His loyal followers tried to mollify him without success. The atmosphere at headquarters was morose, and disgruntled employees voiced their complaints in secret. He belittled them in a myriad of ways from shouting insults to shoving them against a wall, yet many continued to worship him and see the man as their only hope. The marred and frightening world outside the compound walls was, they suspected, even worse. When the commandos stormed his headquarters, his last sentence was, it's all a metaphor for something. The sound was lost in gunfire, the exact word was never actually heard with clarity, or perhaps he never got it out before bullets piercing his ribcage cut off any possibility of further speech. The underlings would have welcomed the relief offered by the soldiers, but they knew, when the dust cleared, they were simply trading in one dictator for another.


The Universal Leave Me Alone

Meanwhile, back in Hauppauge, the meter that measures the frequency of repeated test words could be beeping and spitting out new vocabulary candidates, replacing morose, for example, with moribund, luminous with lambent, ebullient with effusive. Millions of potential test-takers put their obsolete boxes up for sale on ebay, but with revisions, the old words are becoming worthless, chased out of the house. Their ultimate destination may well be the landfill. 

My son flees the five hundred. He runs out the door, and why not? The five hundred words contain the keys to the universe, they have that reputation, that rumor surrounding them, that's how they are advertised, but as the door clicks shut, you might ask, as other sixteen-year-old boys and girls ask, accidentally knocking the cards on the floor, whose universe do these cards unlock exactly?

According to statistics there are no registered sex offenders in Hauppauge, New York, tornado activity is above the state average, but earthquake activity is below the state mean. The likely residents counted as self-reported same-sex unmarried-partner households are listed at 0.2%. Sixty Hauppaugians live in halfway houses for drug/alcohol abuse, fifty-four citizens live in homes for the mentally ill. It doesn't appear to be a town which would house saboteurs or subversives, so the sentences which proclaim, in standard accepted English, that a tirade is hurled by a committed smoker, frustrated by restrictions imposed on his or her wish to light up, and antipathy is felt by fans of one baseball team towards fans of an opposing team, mark out the territory of example and usage, a geography of relative peace and harmony, the home of the high frequency five hundred where itinerant is bracketed by hackneyed on one side and irreproachable on the other, each disconnected alphabetically-arranged representative immune to the tyranny of selection that they, in fact, signify. The meat and potatoes of the testing system itself.