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Visual Dictionary: Effigy


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

An effigy is a representation of someone, such as a statue, or — more commonly — a grotesque or crude representation of a hated person, as in the expression “burned in effigy.” (Much like poking pins in a voodoo doll, burning a paper mache version of a ruler is an evocative way to express dislike).

A scarecrow is also a common type of effigy, intended to scare birds away and keep them from eating crops.

In Ecuador, burning effigies — especially figures representing the worst of the past year — is a traditional way to celebrate New Years. From photographer Eric Walton:


“This stage-hand is putting the finishing touches on an elaborate display of effigies in which Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is represented as a puppet-master who is controlling the president of Columbia and another figure who was identified as Falso Positivo.”

PopVocab: Grandstanding on 30 Rock


To grandstand is to “to conduct oneself or perform showily or ostentatiously in an attempt to impress onlookers.” As a noun, a grandstand is essentially “the bleachers,” so the verb grandstand means to act as though you’re in the stadium, performing for bleachers full of onlookers.

A similar word is declaim, meaning to make a formal speech, or to speak aloud in an oratorical, pompous, or showy way (that is, to act as though you are making a formal speech when you really ought to just talk normally).

This past October, just in time for the election, Queen Latifah appeared on 30 Rock as Senator Regina Bookman (also up for reelection) of Rhode Island. Watch Bookman grandstand!

PopVocab: “Expurgate” in Monty Python


This classic Monty Python sketch, “Bookshop,” contains a memorable use of the word expurgate, which means “to censor, to remove morally offensive passages.”

The funny part — if you haven’t heard or seen the sketch before — is that the customer in the bookshop wants an expurgated version of a book that no one would normally find the need to censor: Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds. (He dislikes a particular bird — they have “long, nasty beaks”).

There are a few other GRE words relating to censoring or shortening:

Redact – Revise or edit; draw up or frame. This word is sometimes used euphemistically to refer to censorship, as in the title of the 2007 film Redacted.

Abridge – “To shorten by omissions while retaining the basic contents,” as is frequently done when adapting a book to audiobook format.

Truncate – “to shorten by cutting off a part; cut short”

And, of course, don’t get censor mixed up with censure, which means to disapprove, especially formally.

Vocab at the Movies: Sanctum


The new James Cameron 3-D action thriller Sanctum is about a cave diving team that becomes trapped in an underwater labyrinth.

“Soon, they are confronted with the unavoidable question: Can they survive, or will they be trapped forever?”

A sanctum is a sacred place or a place free from intrusion. For instance, your bedroom might be a sanctum where you can lock the door and study for the GRE for hours without interruption! (Or maybe you’re not so lucky…).

So, the use of sanctum is a bit unusual (perhaps ironic) for a place where our heroes are trapped and risk a watery death.

Sanctum contains the root “sanct-“, which means “holy” and also appears in sanctuary, sanctify, sacrosanct, and sanctimonious.

Vocab at the Movies: Flotsam and Jetsam in The Little Mermaid


Flotsam and JetsamFlotsam and Jetsam are evil moray eels in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

The words flotsam and jetsam, appropriately enough, are words related to trash found in the water.

While the two words usually occur as an expression — “flotsam and jetsam,” always in that order — they do have distinct meanings:

Flotsam is “the part of the wreckage of a ship and its cargo found floating on the water.”

Jetsam is “goods cast overboard deliberately, as to lighten a vessel or improve its stability in an emergency, which sink where jettisoned or are washed ashore.”

As an expression, “flotsam and jetsam” often means any big mess of trash, or even of people. The earthquake that destroyed much of the city also caused the prison’s north wall to crumble, allowing the flotsam and jetsam of society to pour out into the chaos.

A third word, lagan, refers to “anything sunk in the sea, but attached to a buoy or the like so that it may be recovered.”

From Wikipedia, on The Little Mermaid:

Flotsam and Jetsam are the first to notice Ariel’s infatuation with the world above. Upon witnessing the mermaid fall in love with a human, Prince Eric, Ursula sends Flotsam and Jetsam to propose a deal to Ariel. In making sure that Ursula wins the deal, Flotsam and Jetsam sabotage what would have been a successful kiss between Ariel and Eric. In the climax, Flotsam and Jetsam attempt to drown Eric by dragging him underwater.


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Vocab at the Movies: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


Harry-Potter-and-the-Deathly-Hallows-Movie-PosterWhat on earth are hallows, anyway?

You may have heard the word hallow as a verb — if you’re Catholic, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….” Universities are sometimes referred to as “these hallowed halls.” Another name for Halloween is “Hallow’s Eve.”

As a verb, hallow means “to make holy; to honor as holy.”

As a noun, hallow or hallows means “a holy person or saint; the relics or remains of a saint, or the shrines in which they are kept.”

Select your own answer to this GRE Antonyms question before clicking “more”:

A. disinter
B. apotheosize
C. deconsecrate
D. depredate
E. osculate

Read more

Vocab at the Movies: The Dilemma


The Dilemma movie posterA dilemma is, properly speaking, a choice between two (equally bad) options — hence the prefix “di,” meaning two (“bi” is Latin and “di” is Greek, but both mean “two,” as in dichotomy or bifurcate).

If you have a choice among three bad options, you have a trilemma (really!)

I gathered from the IMDB page for The Dilemma that the film is about a man who has to decide whether to reveal to his friend the details of the friend’s wife’s affair (that is, her clandestine trysts) — so that really does sound like a dilemma.

If what you have on your hands is more of just a big problematic mess, one of these words would probably be more appropriate:

Quandary: a state of perplexity or uncertainty

Quagmire: an area of miry or boggy ground whose surface yields underfoot (like quicksand); a situation from which extrication is very difficult

Debacle: a sudden downfall, a complete collapse or failure

A quandary could be serious, but could also be pretty mild. Two boys asked me to the prom at the same time — I’m in such a quandary!

The Vietnam War was famously referred to as a quagmire.

In fact, Vietnam could be said to have been a quagmire that turned into a debacle. That is, a quagmire is a quicksand-like problem that it is very hard to get out of — but there’s still a chance! A debacle is a disastrous failure. You could say something like “I’m in a quandary about what would be our best chance of extricating ourselves from this quagmire before it becomes a debacle.”

Happy New Year!




May this day herald the advent of an auspicious new year!

Top Words of 2010


Most lists of the “top words of 2010” are all about sexting, jeggings, vuvuzela, and bromances. But a few GRE-worthy words have made headlines this past year:


Shellacking – An utter defeat or sound thrashing. President Obama used this word to refer to Republicans’ victories in the midterm election. “Shellac” or “shellack” is also a somewhat obsolete form of varnish; the way in which a word for varnish came to be a verb meaning “to beat” is somewhat arcane, as explained in this BBC article.

sarah palin

“Refudiate” – Coined by Sarah Palin in 2010, “refudiate” is NOT A WORD. However, this solecism (or, to be kind, neologism) seems to be a fusion of refute and repudiate, both important GRE words. What’s the difference? To refute is to prove an argument or opinion to be false. To repudiate is to reject, cast off, or disown. You refute an argument; you repudiate your family, country, or religion. I could repudiate my belief that the Earth is round, but I don’t think it would be possible for me to refute it.

“Snowmageddon” and “Snowpocalypse” – These portmanteau words referring to record cold temperatures around the globe (as in, now) are playing off the words apocalypse and armageddon. Apocalypse is any universal or widespread disaster or destruction, or a prophesy of such a disaster. Armageddon is, if possible, even worse: the place where the final battle will be fought between the forces of good and evil, or a final and completely destructive battle. Many movies have a post-apocalyptic setting (recently: Blindness, The Book of Eli, I Am Legend), but a post-Armageddon setting would hardly be possible, as there would be no humans left to be characters in the movie.

A felicitious Snowmageddon and a happy new year!

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