Word Challenge I: Two Words One Speech – MLK

Word Challenge: Two Words, One Speech- MLK

This marks the first installment of an innovative series written by Bell Curves co-founder Akil Bello for Riise to College‘s blog in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr Day.  It was originally posted on 1/16/12. 

By examining famous speeches by great orators we can see how vocabulary words are used to inspire change, and also how these same words might appear on standardized tests like the SAT. 

Our first vocabulary challenge comes to you on MLK Day and inspired by his 1963 speech, “I   Have a Dream.” Not only is  this speech uplifting in its message but it also demonstrates the scope and beauty of the English language. As you celebrate MLK Day, Black History Month, and Presidents’ Day, take the opportunity to explore and appreciate the things that brought these various people to the public eye. As you complete assignments in school exploring MLK’s message of Civil Rights and equality, make sure you take time to appreciate the beauty of the words he chose and the importance of a well-developed vocabulary. As you read his words accept the challenge of improving your vocabulary so that one day you may deliver an equally rousing oration that could go on to inspire generations of children.

The two words (among the many) that we’ve chosen to highlight from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” (full text and audio is found here) are withering and jangling. These two words struck me as particularly interesting because if you know them they are probably not used in his speech in the way in which they are most commonly known. They are also used so eloquently that we had to point out those particular sentences.

Withering (adjective):
1. acting or serving to cut down or destroy
2. intended to make someone feel mortified or humiliated.

Used in its more rare adjective form (rather than the noun which usually is used to refer to plants drying out or getting old), withering highlights the intent of the injustice suffered and how it had been used to humiliate and destroy. Through the use of this one word he creates an understanding of the depth of the horror suffered by the lack of equality.

When you write your next papers consider whether it is appropriate to not only criticize someone, but instead to deliver “withering criticism!”

Jangling (adjective):
1. having a harsh discordant metallic sound.
2. having an irritating effect on.

Again here King selected an adjective that more commonly is used as a noun or verb and applied the less direct or common definition (the common definition being: making a metallic noise like to jangle coins in your pocket). He creates through the use of this word a mental image of the harsh, irritating, and inharmoniousness rampant in the country at that time (and then beautifully puts it up against his dream of equality).

After reading this speech, spend the next week working jangling into your vocabulary. Maybe when your sister, father, or uncle next sings in the shower rather than simply saying that their singing is bad you should tell them of the jangling dissonance caused by their voice.

Below we’ve excerpted two paragraphs from “I Have a Dream” and bolded two words in those paragraphs. These two particular words have been highlight because they are 1. used as part of a beautiful sentence 2. very likely to appear on standardized tests and 3. should be part of the vocabulary of every college-bound student.

Making these words part of your vocabulary will not only help you better appreciate this speech, but will also help you succeed on standardized tests. The SSAT and ISEE are both very likely to test these words in an analogy or synonym question like this:

Which of the choices is closest in meaning to the given word?


(A) wearisome
(B) pleasurable
(C) harmonious
(D) clashing
(E) infuriating

These words could also likely appear in an SAT Sentence Completion like this:

Choose the word that best fits in the missing blank.

After her mother came to school and delivered a —– speech in front of the whole school, Margaret decided not only to skip prom, but also to avoid any extra-curricular activities.

(A) withering
(B) hostile
(C) harmonious
(D) clashing
(E) verbose

I hope we’ve provided you with some new thoughts and exposure to a few of the more exciting words in the beautiful language we speak. Enjoy MLK day!

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