Manhattan Prep GRE Blog

Idioms for Reading Comp: Gloss Over, Paper Over, Whitewash

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glossGloss over, paper over, and whitewash are all expressions for covering up a problem, insult, etc. rather than addressing it or fixing it. Think of a dirty floor that you just put a pretty rug on top of instead of cleaning.

Because gloss is slippery (think of lip gloss), gloss over often has the sense of trying to smoothly and quickly move on to something else.

Whitewash, literally, is a substance used to whiten walls, wood, etc.

He made a snide remark about short people and then tried to gloss over it when he realized his 5’2 boss had overheard.

The journalist accused the government of trying to whitewash the scandal, implying that the officials covered up the incident out of concern for national security rather than to protect themselves.

Origin Stories: Toady

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“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.

A toady is someone who flatters or acts in a servile manner for self-serving reasons.

Look at that toady, sucking up and offering to do the boss’s Christmas shopping for his kids. Gross.

Lackey, Sycophant, and Myrmidon are synonyms.

Fawn means to try to please in a submissive way.

Obsequious means servile, very compliant, fawning.

Truckle means to act subserviently.

Toady comes from toad-eater, after magicians’ assistants who would supposedly eat poisonous toads so the magician could show off his ability to magically expel the poison. Toadeat used to mean do any degrading thing for your boss, but today you can use toady as a verb (or toady up to someone) for this purpose.

toad

Visual Dictionary: Tokens and Tokenism

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A token can be a sign, symbol, mark, or badge; a souvenir or memento; a coin-like disk used as currency for subways, arcade games, etc.; or a person, thing, or idea taken to represent an entire group.

Token can also be an adjective meaning “of very little or merely symbolic value.”

That definition about “a person, thing, or idea taken to represent an entire group” has a little more to it, though. From Wikipedia’s page on tokenism:

Tokenism refers to a policy or practice of limited inclusion of members of a minority group, usually creating a false appearance of inclusive practices, intentional or not. Typical examples in real life and fiction include purposely including a member of a minority race (such as a black character in a mainly white cast, or a woman in a traditionally male universe) into a group. Classically, token characters have some reduced capacity compared to the other characters and may have bland or inoffensive personalities so as to not be accused of stereotyping negative traits. Alternatively, their differences may be overemphasized or made “exotic” and glamorous.

By the same token is an expression that means the speaker will then say something based on the same evidence he or she used for what was previously said.

I am starting to realize that this law firm hired me to be its token woman. There I am, smiling in all the ads “ but I never actually get to work on important cases.

I am giving you this Best Friends Forever necklace as a token of our friendship.

The charity did pay me a token amount to speak. I offered to speak for free, but the president gave me a check for a small amount as a measure of respect.

As a libertarian, he wants to abolish the IRS. By the same token, he wants drugs legalized.

Choosy Moms Choose Vocabulary: Deleterious

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I thought this was pretty excellent. Notice how my mom wasn’t sure about how to use the word, so she “looked up examples of this word’s use in a sentence”? What an excellent strategy!

mom-deleterious

PopVocab: Plaudits, Gilded, Sylph

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This recent article from the UK’s Daily Mail contained several GRE-appropriate vocabulary words.

Plaudits (always plural) means an enthusiastic expression of approval. The word shares a root with applaud, laud, and laudation, and is used similarly to the (also plural) kudos.

Gilded means “covered or highlighted with gold or something of a golden color,” or “having a pleasing or showy appearance that conceals something of little worth.”

You probably remember the “Gilded Age” from U.S. History, a time in which the upper class lived opulent lifestyles and gave lavishly to philanthropic causes, but also a time in which a class divide was growing and labor unrest was brewing. From Wikipedia:

The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their 1873 book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The name refers to the process of gilding an object with a superficial layer of gold and is meant to make fun of ostentatious display while playing on the term “golden age.”

A common expression is “to gild the lily”, which means “to add unnecessary ornamentation, a special feature, etc., in an attempt to improve something that is already complete, satisfactory, or ideal.” After all, if you’ve already got a beautiful flower, why would you try to gold-plate it?

Today I graduated with my masters and also got engaged! It’s the best day of my life! Baking me a celebratory cake would just be gilding the lily.

Don’t confuse gild with guild, a medieval trade organization or any organization of people with related interests, goals, etc.

A Sylph is a slender, graceful woman or girl. No surprise there, right? Oh, here’s definition #2: “(in folklore) one of a race of supernatural beings supposed to inhabit the air.”

They’re so thin they EAT AIR! Okay, not exactly. From Dictionary.com, credited to Random House:

Sylph, salamander, undine ( nymph ), gnome were imaginary beings inhabiting the four elements once believed to make up the physical world. All except the gnomes were female. Sylphs dwelt in the air and were light, dainty, and airy beings. Salamanders dwelt in fire: a salamander that lives in the midst of flames (Addison). Undines were water spirits: By marrying a man, an undine could acquire a mortal soul. (They were also called nymphs, though nymphs were ordinarily minor divinities of nature who dwelt in woods, hills, and meadows as well as in waters.) Gnomes were little old men or dwarfs, dwelling in the earth: ugly enough to be king of the gnomes.

That’s pretty incredible. I think I’ve seen a few gnome/sylph romances among the rich and famous.

Origin Stories: Modish

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origin story“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.

Modish means stylish or contemporary.

While some sculptors sought to make their work universal and timeless, Dania sculpted modish creations that captured the pop cultural zeitgeist “ for instance, a sculpture of Rihanna with an umbrella, or a three-foot high representation of the latest Alexander McQueen heels.

The expression “in vogue” means modish.

In the U.S., a la mode generally means with ice cream (pie a la mode), but it really means in fashion (in French and also in English). As it turns out, putting ice cream on things was once a big fad.

Visual Dictionary: Mired

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

Mired means “stuck, entangled (in something, like a swamp or muddy area), soiled.”

Mired in her predecessor’s mess and mistakes, the new CEO found it difficult to take the company in a new direction.

Relatedly, morass and quagmire are also words (often used metaphorically) for soft, swampy ground that a person can sink into. The Vietnam War was famously called a quagmire. Also, morass makes an appearance in the excellent book Butt Rot and Bottom Gas: A Glossary of Tragically Misunderstood Words.

The expression muck and mire means, literally, animal waste and mud.”

The federal prosecutor spent weeks wading through the muck and mire of the scandal “ every uncovered document showed that the corruption was deeper and worse than previously thought.

Finally, to muck up is to mess up or get dirty, and to muck about or around is to waste time.

No offense intended to the adorable piglets.

Origin Stories: Laconic

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“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.

Laconic means “using few words, concise.”

The boss was famously laconic; after allowing his employees to present their new plan for an entire hour, he finally responded, Confirmed.

Some related words: reticent and taciturn (not talking much) are often used to describe shy people and do not have the sense of getting the point across efficiently than laconic does. Pithy, however, takes this idea even further “ it means getting the point across in just a few, cleverly-chosen words.

Laconic comes from the Greek place name Laconia, the region in which Sparta (which of course gives us spartan) was located. A famous story has an invading general threatening, If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground. The Spartans laconically replied, If.

Three-Letter Words: Hew

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hewSome of the most perplexing words on the GRE are diminutive. Who doesn’t see PAN : REVIEW and metaphorically scratch his or her head, or wonder what, exactly, a nib or a gin is on its own? Welcome to Three-Letter Words. A few of them might make you want to deploy some four-letter words.

To hew is to “strike forcibly with an ax, sword, or other cutting instrument; chop; hack” or to make or shape something, such as a statue, with a cutting tool.

The pioneer had to hew his own way through the brush in order to proceed westward.

She preferred rustic furniture; her dining room chairs were little more than stumps roughly hewn into stools.

The past tense of hew is hewn, and the expression roughly hewn (or rough-hewn, or rough hewed) is often used metaphorically, to describe something that seems unfinished or sort of looks as though it was “carved” with a heavy axe rather than more delicate tools.

For instance, a manly-man movie star — someone like Gerard Butler or Russell Crowe — is a bit more roughly hewn than someone like Leonardo DiCaprio or Zac Efron.

Manhattan GRE’s blog is written by one of our real-live GRE instructors. She teaches in New York. To learn about Manhattan GRE’s classes, go here. To suggest a word or topic for the blog, email jenniferd@manhattangmat.com.

Origin Stories: Glib

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origin story“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.

Glib means “fluent and easy in way that suggests superficiality or insincerity.”

She was the worst teacher he had ever encountered, giving glib responses to every question. Can you help me with this algebra problem? he asked. Oh, just solve for x, she said, and walked away.

Some related words are flippant (disrespectfully casual or light in manner), impertinent (inappropriately bold), and saucy (disrespectful or irrepressible, especially in an entertaining way).

Glib comes from a Germanic root for slippery. A glib comments slips right out of your mouth — when you should have instead spent more time thinking and come up with something more meaningful.