Manhattan Prep GRE Blog

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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Mental Floss T-Shirts, Part III: Scurvy, Quantum


Scurvy is a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. From Wikipedia:

Scurvy was at one time common among sailors, pirates and others aboard ships at sea longer than perishable fruits and vegetables could be stored (subsisting instead only on cured and salted meats and dried grains) and by soldiers similarly separated from these foods for extended periods. It was described by Hippocrates (c. 460 BC“c. 380 BC), and herbal cures for scurvy have been known in many native cultures since prehistory. Scurvy was one of the limiting factors of marine travel, often killing large numbers of the passengers and crew on long-distance voyages. This became a significant issue in Europe from the beginning of the modern era in the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, continuing to play a significant role through World War I in the 20th century.

It was a pretty big deal when it was finally discovered that citrus fruit cured scurvy.

More interestingly for the GRE, however, scurvy can also be an adjective meaning “despicable or mean.”

The scurvy bully not only stole his lunch money, but also reversed all the positive and negative signs on his math homework.

Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics (it does not involve manual labor — hence the joke), but quantum on its own means “a particular quantity or amount” or can be used as an adjective to mean “sudden and dramatic” (a quantum shift in thought).

The meaning in physics is related to the smallest indivisible part of something (radiant energy) and can be used this way colloquially as well:

If you want to share your Skittles, a quantum is quite small (one Skittle), but if you want to share your Reese’s cups, a quantum is quite large (one of only two cups in the pack).

The word quantum also notably appears in the title of the show Quantum Leap (in which Scott Bakula’s character time-travels someplace new in every episode) and in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace (we’re not sure why it’s called that — probably just because “Q” words sound cool).

Mental Floss T-Shirts, Part II: Hyperbole, Kinetic, Binary


Hyperbole is obvious and intentional exaggeration. Haha, “best thing ever”!

Kinetic means pertaining to or caused by motion. Relatedly, “motion scientists” (and highly educated gym teachers) are called kinesiologists.

Binary means of or relating to the number two. Sometimes people say binary to refer to a system of “ones and zeros” in computer programming.

Mathematically, binary means “of or pertaining to a system of numerical notation to the base 2, in which each place of a number, expressed as 0 or 1, corresponds to a power of 2. The decimal number 58 appears as 111010 in binary notation.”

Colloquially, people use binary to refer to a system with only two options. Activists fighting for the rights of transgendered (or non-gender-conforming) people sometimes speak out against a “gender binary.” By this, they mean that it ought to be okay to exist at various places in the middle of a spectrum of male and female, or to exist entirely outside of that system of gender encoding.

These shirts and other risible sartorial items are available here.

Mental Floss T-Shirts: Apathy, Ambiguity, Entropy


The Mental Floss store (last-minute holiday shopping, anyone?) sells a number of hilarious t-shirts that cleverly take advantage of GRE-style vocabulary.

Let’s start with an easy one:

Haha. Apathy means not caring. (A synonym is indifference). Don’t confuse apathy with antipathy, which is hatred.

Ambiguity, of course, is unclearness. Don’t confuse with ambivalence, the state of having mixed feelings or being undecided. Generally, stuff is ambiguous, people are ambivalent.

Entropy is the eventual heat death of the universe. We use it metaphorically to refer to the idea that all things kind of naturally fall apart if given enough time.

“Why is our last year’s best-performing branch lagging? What happened to those weekly motivational meetings? I thought that team worked so well together! We gave them the team-building award!”

(shrug) “I dunno. Entropy?”

These shirts and other risible sartorial items are available here.

PopVocab: Bristol Palin and the Tired, Old Canard


Bristol Palin is, of course, the daughter of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, as well as a recent contestant on Dancing with the Stars and an abstinence advocate who is also mother to a almost-two-year-old.

It is for this last apparent paradox that MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann named Bristol Worst Person in the World (well, at least the Worst Person in the World for November 29th).

But this blog isn’t about politics, it’s about vocabulary. Bristol shot back on Facebook:

“Accusing me of hypocrisy is by now, an old canard. What Mr. Olbermann lacks in originality he makes up for with insincere incredulity.”

That’s a pretty good use of several GRE-worthy words (as well as alliteration)!

A canard is “a false or baseless, usually derogatory story, report, or rumor,” often used in the expression “tired, old canard.”

Canard is, literally, the French word for “duck” (the animal, not the verb). There seems to be some relationship with the English use of the word quack to mean a con artist, a dishonest salesperson. One origin note for canard offers: “from French: a duck, hoax, from Old French caner to quack, of imitative origin.”

Here, Bristol seems to be saying that pointing out that she is an abstinence advocate who, in the past, did not practice abstinence, is “played out.” She may be somewhat misusing the word, though, since certainly the mother of a small child cannot claim that the claim is “false or baseless.” The word canard is correctly used to refer to false stories that just won’t die — for instance, the tired, old canard that we only use 10% of our brains (and therefore this magic brain-enhancement program, spiritual movement, or pill will help you use the rest of it!)

Incredulity is an unwillingness to believe. It’s the state we’re in when we say, sincerely, “I just can’t believe it!” You could go so far as to call it the “OMG!” emotion.

So, insincere incredulity would be Olbermann pretending to be shocked when he really isn’t. I’ve never heard these two words put together before, but I can see it — a person might engage in insincere incredulity if she knows you’re planning her a surprise party but she doesn’t want you to know that she knows. So everybody jumps out and yells “Surprise!” and she says “OMG! I just can’t believe it!”

Insincere certainly has a negative connotation, though, so perhaps an even more appropriate use of the phrase would be something like a situation in which you tell your “friend” that you just found out that your boyfriend’s been cheating on you and she feigns total shock and indignation, but — OMG! — the woman he’s been cheating on you with is her!

Your erstwhile friend’s shock would certainly count as insincere incredulity.