Manhattan Prep GRE Blog

Vocabulary Misunderstandings: Inmate Sues Prison for Calling Him an “Inmate”


Oh, this is rich. From the Daily Mail:

The inmate’s sister told the New York Post that the use of the word inmate “implies that our brother is locked up for the purpose of mating with other men.”


The sister, who is also acting as the family’s lawyer, also said, “I couldn’t understand why no one recognised that somebody being labelled an inmate, why they wouldn’t recognise that…. To me it just sounded very wrong.”

Hmmn, I wonder why other people don’t immediately associate “inmate” with “mating”? Perhaps because of….

a ship’s mate or “first mate”
“Ahoy, matey!”
the fact that British people call their friends “mates”
the fact that etymologies can easily be looked up online by anyone for free at any time

According to Etymonline, “mate” meaning “companion, associate, fellow, comrade” dates from the late 14th century from the Middle Low German gemate, “one eating at the same table, messmate” from a Germanic root for “having food together.”

So, being called an “inmate” certainly does imply that you eat food with the other prisoners. Oh no! How degrading.

While we’re on the topic, here are some GRE words related to crime and punishment:

Indict – to charge with an offense or crime; accuse of wrongdoing; castigate; criticize

Depose – to testify or affirm under oath, especially in a written statement; to take the deposition of or examine under oath; or to remove (a ruler) from office or position, especially high office

Penal – of, pertaining to, or involving punishment

Heck, we’re surprised this guy’s sister isn’t complaining about the penal code.

Belated July 4th Post: Fireworks are “Hegemonic”?



According to Slate, fireworks suck:

The professional fireworks display is an exercise in pomposity, aggression, triumphalism, and hubris.

Pomposity, of course, is the noun form of pompous, “Characterized by excessive self-esteem or exaggerated dignity; pretentious.”

Triumphalism is “The attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, especially a religion or political theory, is superior to all others,” or “excessive celebration of the defeat of one’s enemies or opponents.”

Hubris is “Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance.”

The pyrotechnician”and, more importantly, his patron”intends to ornament the night sky beyond the powers of God himself. He means to inspire awe for little purpose other than to demonstrate his power. The first great fireworks nuts in the Western world were Peter the Great (who put on a five-hour show to celebrate the birth of his first son) and Louis XIV (who, with a specially equipped sundial, used them to tell time at Versailles).

A pyrotechnician (or pyrotechnist) is “a person skilled in the use and handling of fireworks.”

Fireworks are imperialist and, as we used to say in school, hegemonic. That they are popularly believed to be populist entertainment does not say much for the populace.

Hegemonic is the adjective form of hegemony, “The predominant influence, as of a state, region, or group, over another or others.”

Populist means “of or relating to populism; appealing to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people.”

In other words, fireworks are an American way of showing off our aggressive military might, and defying nature by impressing people! Hmmn, I’m not sure that ornamenting things for no greater purpose than to inspire awe is all that iniquitous — don’t we regularly make buildings, and monuments, and works of art, and nightclub-appropriate garments for just that purpose?

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

iPhone Vocabulary Fail: Ominous!


From Damn You, Auto Correct!:

Ominous, of course, means “Menacing; threatening; of or being an omen, especially an evil one.”

Ominous could be said to be the antonym of auspicious, which means “attended by favorable circumstances; marked by success.”

I need to get my hearing aids checked! What I heard as the ominous sound of thunder was really the auspicious sound of the ice cream truck rumbling down the street!

The word propitious can be used in the same way as auspicious, meaning “presenting favorable circumstances.”

iPhone Vocabulary Fail: Clepsydra


The blog Damn You, Auto Correct! posts screenshots of predictive text programs (mostly the iPhone’s Auto Correct) predicting very, very badly.

While most of the humor is related to people sending inappropriately lewd messages to their family members and coworkers (I wouldn’t recommend reading the site at work), sometimes some pretty good vocabulary words pop up! (I am an iPhone user, and I cannot tell you how many times the iPhone has assumed that, by typing “new” or “never,” what I really wanted was “neocolonialism.”)

Here is a classic:

A clepsydra is in fact a Greek water clock! Even more interestingly, clepsydra contains the root “kleps” (“to steal”), which also occurs in kleptomania, which means compulsive stealing.

If you think of the march of time as “stealing” moments of your life from you, then you could think of the clepsydra as “stealing” the water that marks time.

A few other time words you want to know for the GRE are:

Chronological – Arranged in order of time of occurrence.

Anachronism – The representation of someone as existing or something as happening in other than chronological, proper, or historical order.

Dilatory – Intended to delay; tending to postpone or delay.

Temporize – To act evasively in order to gain time, avoid argument, or postpone a decision.

Oh, and a horologium is a clock tower. Now you know!

Every year, your birthday gift to me is dilatory! I can recount in chronological order every time you have temporized to explain why, once again, your gift to me is “in the mail”!

This year, you finally realized that I do NOT like to receive games for the Wii (I think you just buy me those so you can play with them yourself), and that I actually like to receive anachronistic timepieces for my collection.

So, it’s nice that you found me a clepsydra on eBay, but honestly, I’ll believe it when I see it. I’m going to go pout in the horologium.

No, I know that my bedroom is not a real horologium, but that’s what I like to call it, since it’s full of hourglasses and sundials and it’s on the third floor.

Intractable Vomiting is the Very Worst Kind!


Intractable means:

  1. Difficult to manage or govern; stubborn.
  2. Difficult to mold or manipulate: intractable materials.
  3. Difficult to alleviate, remedy, or cure: intractable pain.

While looking up intractable on, we were treated to this lovely ad:

Oh no! No one wants intractable vomiting!

Speaking of which, you probably wouldn’t want recalcitrant or intransigent vomiting, either!

Incidentally, all three of these words are most commonly used to describe people who are stubborn. But you can also have a recalcitrant bureaucracy, an intransigent problem — or, obviously, an intractable propensity to lose your lunch.

PopVocab: Insidious vs. Invidious


Insidious is an adjective meaning:

1. Working or spreading harmfully in a subtle or stealthy manner: insidious rumors; an insidious disease.
2. Intended to entrap; treacherous: insidious misinformation.
3. Beguiling but harmful; alluring: insidious pleasures.

Insidious is also the title of a 2010 horror film starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Ty Simpkins. According to IMDB: “A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.” Seems likely that a haunted house could provide a steathily-spreading evil.

Relatedly, an insidious disease is “a disease existing, without marked symptoms, but ready to become active upon some slight occasion; a disease not appearing to be as bad as it really is.”

Insidious Disease is also, appropriately enough, a death metal band:

If you ask INSIDIOUS DISEASE about their definition of death metal they would probably answer that it should satisfy your urge for darkness, the morbid and the sick, the perverted and the twisted, all things insane that can be discovered within the human mind and soul manifesting in a sound that makes you vomit your guts out!

Don’t confuse insidious with the similar-sounding invidious, which means:

1. Tending to rouse ill will, animosity, or resentment: invidious accusations.
2. Containing or implying a slight; discriminatory
3. Envious.

Use insidious for creeping, slow-moving evil, and invidious for actions done by humans that are immediately obvious as being harmful. Racist speech is invidious, and the lingering effects of racism have insidious effects on people’s lives.

PopVocab: Swagger (or Circumambulate) Like Us


Recently, a student saw the word swagger in a GRE problem and began to laugh.

“Why is that funny?” I asked.

“I didn’t know that was a real vocab word,” she said. “I thought it was only for rap videos.”

Fantastically, swagger is actually a perfectly GRE appropriate word, and has been around much longer than hip-hop has even existed.

Swagger means “To walk or conduct oneself with an insolent or arrogant air; strut.”

Some other types of walking that might occur on the GRE include:

Sashay: To walk or proceed, especially in an easy or casual manner; To strut or flounce in a showy manner.

Amble: To walk slowly or leisurely; stroll.

Lumber: To walk or move with heavy clumsiness; To move with a rumbling noise.

Perambulate: To walk through; To inspect (an area) on foot; To walk about; roam or stroll.

Circumambulate: To walk around (something), especially as part of a ritual.

PopVocab: It’s My Prerogative


Thanks to Bobby Brown, “prerogative” is one of the most mispronounced words in English — as you can hear in the video, Mr. Brown pronounces the word “PER-ogative.” (Click the audio icon on this page for a correct pronunciation).

Britney Spears repeats the error:

A prerogative is an exclusive right or privilege held by a person or group, or the exclusive right and power to command, decide, rule, or judge.

According to, “a privilege is a right that may be extended to a group or a number of people; a prerogative is a right that, customarily, is vested in a single person.”

It is the boss’s prerogative to determine the office supply budget.

While it is the prerogative of pop stars to pronounce words however they like in their videos, it is the prerogative of lexicographers to record the correct pronunciations of words in dictionaries.

The words warrant and license can be used in somewhat similar ways, although they are milder than prerogative.

The anti-death penalty activist argued that violence is not a warrant for future violence.

The pronunciation activist argued that fame does not give one license to butcher the English language, even if slightly improving the nation’s collective vocabulary in the process.

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science


The title of this book contains two excellent vocabulary words:

Canon means “the body of rules, principles, or standards accepted as axiomatic and universally binding in a field of study or art.” The adjective is canonical — for instance, The Great Gatsby is a canonical work in American literature.

A canon of science ought to cover the basics, as well as important classical ideas on which further exploration has been based.

Whirligig means “something that whirls or revolves, a whirling motion or course: the whirligig of fashion, or a giddy or flighty person.”

Here, whirligig is being used as an adjective — and indeed, one reviewer describes the book as having a “dizzying pace” (not surprising if you proceed from global warming to quantum tunneling within a couple hundred pages).

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

Origin Stories: Supplant


“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.

Supplant means “take the place of, displace, especially through sneaky tactics.”

In the 1950s, many people took cod liver oil as a health supplement. Today, fish oil capsules and flaxseed oil have supplanted the smelly old standby our grandparents used.

He did achieve his dream of becoming CEO, but only after supplanting our previous CEO by wresting control while she was battling cancer.

Some related words are:
Outstrip (surpass, exceed; be larger or better than; leave behind)
Overshadow (cast a shadow over, make to seem less important)
Supersede (replace or cause to be set aside)
Eclipse (obscure, darken, make less important)

Supplant comes from the Latin for to trip up (planta meant the sole of the foot). To supplant something is like a more mature version of sticking your leg out into the aisle so someone falls on his face.

The same root, “planta”, appears in the foot condition plantar fasciitis.