Manhattan Prep GRE Blog

Vocab in the News: A “Peripatetic” Lifestyle


CNN ran this article about Osama bin Laden’s wives, which contained the rather fascinating fact that bin Laden’s fifth wife did not attend her own wedding, which was “an all-male affair.” The reason? “The bride was deemed to have consented to the marriage by traveling to Afghanistan, so her presence was not required.”

So how many wives did bin Laden have? The answer seems to be six, but not at all once. A bit of GRE vocabulary is important in understanding why.

He was first married at the age of 17 to a cousin, Najwa Ghanem, who was probably two years younger than him. They had 11 children, but after a peripatetic life together Najwa finally left him (and Afghanistan) a few days before 9/11.

Peripatetic means “walking around, itinerant.” Najwa wasn’t looking for a nomadic lifestyle, and left bin Laden a few days before 9/11. (But then she later helped arrange his third marriage. So, I guess they kept in touch.)

Similar causes resulted in the departure of bin Laden’s second wife:

Khadijah was unable to cope with their austere existence and returned to Saudi Arabia.

Austere means “severe in manner or appearance; uncompromising; strict; forbidding” or “rigorously self-disciplined and severely moral; ascetic; abstinent.”

This post on the UK’s The Independent adds to this idea of the bin Laden clan’s austere or ascetic lifestyle:

As the West’s public enemy No 1 for nearly a decade, the Osama bin Laden most of us have come to know was an uncompromising, merciless blood-letter…. But Bin Laden was also a family man. To those who knew him he was the Saudi millionaire turned warrior ascetic, who loved poetry and bracing walks in the mountains; who rarely ate meat and was staunchly committed to his kith and kin “ even when they publicly denounced him or abandoned his jihad.

Okay, let’s break it down:

Ascetic – Person who dedicates his or her life to contemplation and practices extreme self-denial for religious reasons, or any person who leads a very simple life abstaining from pleasures and worldly satisfaction.

Bracing – Stimulating, revivifying, energizing (almost always used to describe cold weather).

Staunch – Firm, steadfast, loyal, strong, substantial.

Kith and kin – Acquaintances and relatives. Kith originally meant “one’s native land” and thus came to mean neighbors, countrymen, etc. Kin means extended family and is in common use today.

Origin Stories: Bilk


“Origin story” is an expression for a superhero’s backstory — for instance, Superman was born on Krypton just before it was destroyed. Many words also have fascinating origin stories. While English comes largely from Latin (and from Greek, and from Latin through French and Spanish, with some Germanic roots and a bit of Sanskrit, etc.), you’ll find that word usage can change quite bit over a couple thousand years.

To bilk is to cheat or defraud.

The con artist bilked many elderly people out of their savings, promising to cure illnesses from diabetes to cancer with only 36 monthly payments of $99.99 “ for which the victims received nothing but useless placebo pills.

Hoodwink, Swindle, Con, and Fleece are all verbs for cheating others. Fleece is perhaps more severe, having the connotation of taking everything from the victim, the way one sheers all of the fleece from a sheep.

Bilk can also be a noun for the person who cheats others (I hope that bilk goes to jail!) More obscurely, bilk can mean to “escape from, frustrate, or thwart.”

The word comes from the card game cribbage, where it means to play a card that keeps an opponent from scoring. Cribbage is a card game that uses a board like the one below to keep score.

Visual Dictionary: Fluke


Welcome to Visual Dictionary, a series of posts about words that are better expressed in pictures.

A fluke is a stroke of luck, or something accidentally successful.

It’s amazing that I won the prize during halftime, but I guarantee you, it was just a fluke that I made that basket “ if I tried a thousand more times, I’m sure I couldn’t do it again.

flukeA related word is fortuitous (accidental, lucky).

So what’s that gross picture of a parasite doing here?

Turns out, a fluke can also be a flatworm (a liver fluke), a flounder or flatfish, one of the blades on an anchor, the barbed head of an arrow, or even one of the lobes of a whale’s tail. What all of these objects have in common is being flat (and coming from an old Germanic word for flat). The origin of fluke as a stroke of good luck is unknown “ having flukes parasitizing your liver, for instance, sounds incredibly unlucky.

How come everybody on your foreign study program got liver flukes but you?

I don’t know. Just a fluke, I guess!

PopVocab: Beyonce’s “Bills Bills Bills” on Glee (What’s a GRE word for “scrub”?)


The show Glee has recently resurrected this 1999 Destiny’s Child hit:

Did you notice the GRE word audacity?

And now you ask to use my car
Drive it all day and don’t fill up the tank
And you have the audacity
To even come and step to me
And ask to hold some money from me
Until you get your check next week

Audacity means “boldness or daring, especially with confident or arrogant disregard for personal safety, conventional thought, or other restrictions.” That is, audacity can be good or bad, depending on the context and on one’s perspective. Here, the man in question has “arrogant disregard” for politeness, reciprocity, and the conventions of romantic relationships, as seen by the speaker.

The speaker also calls her paramour a “trifling, good for nothing type of brother.” Another word for trifling is nugatory, “of no real value; trifling; worthless.”

It also seems that the hapless lover is guilty of cadging. To cadge is to obtain by imposing on another’s generosity or friendship, borrow without intent to repay, or beg or obtain by begging.

You’re slowly making me pay for things
Your money should be handling.

Sounds manipulative! It seems like this guy is a champion cadger, and that his answer to the question “Can you pay my automo’bills?” is certain to be an unsatisfying one.

Idioms for Reading Comp: Not X, Let Alone Y


The Bruzowski Company’s competitor to the iPad, the $uperKoolTablet, isn’t ___________, let alone ubiquitous.

WIthout knowledge of the idiom “Not X, let alone Y” (as well as the word ubiquitous), many people would have a hard time filling in the blank in the sentence above.

This idiom is also precisely the sort of thing that leads people to not quite understand what they’re reading in Reading Comp. Many students say to themselves, “Why is the word alone in this sentence?”, but then they’re not sure what to look up, so they just let it go … and possibly miss a question.

“Not X, let alone Y” “ Not X and definitely not this even more extreme thing, Y.

For instance:

Our remaining funds are not enough to get us through the week, let alone enough to pay next month’s payroll.

In this sentence, getting through the week is less expensive than next month’s payroll, so if we can’t afford the cheaper thing, we definitely can’t afford the more expensive thing.

In the sentence about the $uperKoolTablet, the word in the blank should be a lesser form of ubiquitous (existing everywhere). Thus, a good fill-in for the blank would be “popular” or “widely available.”

The expressions “not to mention” and “much less” can be used in the same way:

I signed up for this GRE class because I have no memory of ever learning geometry, not to mention quadratic equations.

You let that man give you mouth-to-mouth after you ran out of breath at the pool? That guy doesn’t even know CPR, much less is he a “world class doctor.” He just likes to hang out at the pool and offer people mouth-to-mouth.

Origin Stories: Fractious (and Factious)


“Origin story” is an expression for a superhero’s backstory — for instance, Superman was born on Krypton just before it was destroyed. Many words also have fascinating origin stories. While English comes largely from Latin (and from Greek, and from Latin through French and Spanish, with some Germanic roots and a bit of Sanskrit, etc.), you’ll find that word usage can change quite bit over a couple thousand years.

Fractious sounds a lot like “fraction,” doesn’t it? It actually means “Unruly, troublemaking, quarrelsome,” or simply “irritable.”

There’s a good reason the fractious sounds a bit mathematical. The word fraction once meant brawling or discord (as in, “A fraction broke out outside the pub”) -“ even today, a fraction (in math) is something that has been broken up.

Don’t confuse fractious with factious, meaning affected by party strife, breaking into factions or cliques within a larger organization. (Actually, those two words are pretty similar, so if you confused them, it wouldn’t really be the end of the world. A factious group could easily become fractious.)

The Students for Progressive Action were a fractious bunch, always fighting with one another over exactly which progressive action should take priority.

Related Words:
Obstreperous – unruly, noisy
Refractory – stubbornly disobedient
Captious – faultfinding, making a big deal of trivial faults

Also, the GRE classics belligerent, bellicose, and pugnacious all mean “combative, quarrelsome, given to fighting.”

Latin is for Lovers: “Heteropaternal Superfecundation”


As you learn a plethora of GRE vocabulary words, you’ll soon discover that there are some unusual words and phrases you can easily puzzle out.

You may know the root “hetero” from heterosexual and heterogeneous. “Hetero,” of course, means “different.” Another interesting GRE word with “hetero” is heterodox. If you know that “dox/doct” means opinion or teaching (orthodox, doctrine, doctor), then it makes sense that heterodox would mean “different opinion” — in other words, it’s a synonym for unorthodox.

You probably know the word paternal — for instance, a paternal grandmother is your father’s mother, and a paternity test determines whether a man is a particular child’s father. This root also occurs in patriotic, patron, patronize, patricide, patrician, and many others.

“Super,” of course, means “above, upper.” Insuperable is a great GRE word — it means “undefeatable.”

Finally, fecund is an important GRE word meaning “fertile.”

So, if you happen to be watching the Maury Povich show (or reading this article about it) and you read about “heteropaternal superfecundation,” it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that that term means something like “different father super-fertility.” And indeed it does! Apparently, you can have twins by different fathers, if that’s what you’re into.

Idioms for Reading Comp: Entree


Did you know that an entree (or entrée) isn’t just something you eat in a restaurant?

Entree (usually as entree into) can also mean “admittance, permission to enter.” Most people in the U.S. think of an entree as the main dish of a meal, but it originally was an appetizer -“ a dish that leads into the main course (the word is related to enter). A person who wants to rise in society might seek an entree into a certain social group.

You can also say seek entree “ sometimes in that expression, the word an is sometimes omitted.

For disadvantaged young people, good public schools can provide an entree into the middle class.

I have sought entree to the upper echelons of power for some time, but no one wants to play golf with me.

Easily Confused Words: Prodigy and Prodigal (Hint: “Prodigal” is BAD)


prodigy ≠ prodigal

A prodigy is an extraordinarily talented person, especially a child genius. For instance, Doogie Howser, of the TV show, “Doogie Howser, M.D.”

Prodigal is an adjective meaning “wastefully or recklessly extravagant,” or a noun meaning “a wasteful person.” This is Rembrandt’s painting “Return of the Prodigal Son,” based on a story from the Bible.

The guy on his knees is the prodigal one, but in the painting, he’s not being prodigal — he’s repenting for being prodigal.

The pith of the story is this: A man has two sons. Younger son: “Hey Dad, I know you’re not dead yet, but can I have my inheritance now anyway?” The munificent father gives the son the money, and the son goes off and spends it on wine and women, that sort of thing (what a libertine!) Then, famine strikes! The son becomes desperately poor and has to herd pigs. When it gets really bad, he decides to go back home and beg for a job as his father’s servant. But before the son can even ask, the father is already kissing him and having the servants dress him in fine robes and “kill the fatted calf” for a celebration. The older, obedient, non-prodigal son gets kind of pissed — nobody’s throwing a party for him, so why are they throwing a party for his jerk brother? We’ll leave aside the religious lesson (hint: the Dad is like God!), but the prodigal part is the younger son wasting all his money.

In sum, prodigal and prodigy are not at all the same thing! If I hear one more person tell me that prodigal means “genius,” I will be filled with a prodigious indignation!

Oh, I almost forgot. Prodigious isn’t the same as prodigy or prodigal — it just means “large.”

AdVocab: Aerie by American Eagle


When I wrote this post about the word aerie, little did I know that Aerie was a store you could find in the mall! (I found one on a trip to Boston).

An aerie, of course, is “the nest of a bird of prey, as an eagle or a hawk” — or, metaphorically speaking, “a house, fortress, or the like, located high on a hill or mountain.” Aerie can also be spelled aery, eyrie, or eyry.

So, the store American Eagle seems to have opened up a lingerie shop called Aerie. You know … eagle … aerie? Makes sense, right? As in, if an eagle wanted to get amorous, it might say, “Hey baby, come on up to my aerie.”