Manhattan Prep GRE Blog

Vocab at the Movies: Gulliver’s Travels

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Gulliver’s Travels is a new film featuring Jack Black — and of course, is also a satirical novel (published 1726) by Jonathan Swift.

Three truly excellent vocabulary words proceed from Gulliver’s Travels (the book, of course):

In the story, Gulliver, a rather hapless “captain of several ships” ends up in the land of Lilliput, where people are only six inches tall and he is a giant. From this comes the word lilliputian (meaning small).

Later, Gulliver travels to Brobdingnag, where people are roughly 72 feet tall and Gulliver is thought to be adorable, carried around in a box, and used to amuse the Queen. Brobdingnagian, unsurprisingly, means extremely large.

Gulliver also travels to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan (weird), as well as to the land of the Houyhnhnms, where he encounters horrifying, deformed creatures, as well as talking horses. It turns out the horses (the Houyhnhnms) are the rulers, and have wisely constructed an ideal society; the deformed creatures are humans in their natural, debased state — the yahoos.

Yahoo today means “crude, uncultivated person” — e.g., boor, lout, yokel, or philistine.

In the end, Gulliver is forced to return home against his will but cannot bear to live among the “yahoos.” He becomes a recluse and spends his time mostly talking to his horses.

Origin Stories: Apocryphal

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origin stories“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.

Apocryphal means “of questionable authenticity; false.”

I’m sorry, but this putative letter from George Washington that you found at a garage sale is clearly apocryphal -“ it is riddled with anachronisms (for instance, Washington was long dead by the time silent films were invented), and also, Washington most certainly didn’t refer to Martha Washington as hey baby.

Related Words: Ersatz (artificial, synthetic, serving as a substitute), Faux (fake, imitation, as in faux fur), and Specious (pleasing to the eye but deceptive).

The word Apocrypha often refers to books that have been rejected for inclusion in (various versions of) the Bible, either due to dubious authenticity or because the Church considered them useful, but not divinely inspired. Obviously, different authorities disagree about what exactly is included in the Apocrypha.

The Latin “apocryphus” meant “secret, not approved for public reading,” from the Greek “apokryphos” (hidden, obscure), from the roots “apo” (away) and “kryptein” (to hide, also appearing in “crypt”). Hmmn, is that like kryptonite? Actually, yes — before Krypton was a fictional planet, it was a chemical element. The name comes from the same root, so named because it is a rare gas.

Origin Stories: Anoint

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origin stories“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.

Anoint means “rub or sprinkle oil on; make sacred, such as by a ceremony that includes applying oil to someone.”

After Principal Smitters raised test scores over 60% at her school, it was only a matter of time before she was anointed superintendant by a fawning school board.

Anoint shares a root with ointment, an oily substance added to the skin. Anointing occurs repeatedly in the Bible; in that time, people rubbed oil on themselves medicinally and for refreshment, and as a means of showing hospitality to guests.

Visual Dictionary: Equivocate

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

Jennifer walking on equator copy

To equivocate is to use unclear language to deceive or avoid committing to a position. Colloquially, we sometimes say that someone is “flip-flopping.”

Not wanting to lose supporters, the politician equivocated on the issue, tossing out buzzwords related to each side while also claiming more study was needed.

Related Words:

  • Ambivalent (uncertain; unable to decide, or wanting to do two contradictory things at once)
  • Vacillate and Waffle (waver, be indecisive)
  • Dither (act irresolutely)
  • Hedge (avoid commitment by leaving provisions for withdrawal or changing one’s mind; protect a bet by also betting on the other side)
  • Palter (talk insincerely; bargain or haggle)
  • Tergiversate (repeatedly change one’s opinions, equivocate)

Equivocate contains the roots “equi” and “voc” “ think of it as being equally vocal for two or more positions.

Photo of blog author balancing on the equator at Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador. Credit: Eric Walton.

Origin Stories: Adumbrate

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origin stories“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.

Adumbrate means “Give a rough outline of; foreshadow; reveal only partially; obscure.”

When I took on the lead role in the movie, I agreed not to give away the plot, but I suppose I could give a brief adumbration of the premise.

Adumbrate contains the root umbra, Latin for shadow. It may seem that give an outline of and obscure are opposites, but think of it this way “ to adumbrate is to give a shadowy, vague picture of something, which could mean giving more information (if starting with nothing) or obscuring information (if starting with a clear picture) in order to reach that point.

Three-Letter Words: Eke

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ekeSome 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.

If you’ve ever heard the word eke, it was probably in the context of the expression eke out a living or “barely eke out a living,” but what does eke mean by itself?

Interestingly, eke means “increase, enlarge, or lengthen” — in fact, the word shares a root, the Latin “augÄ“re,” with augment.

The expression “to eke out” of course means “to make (a living) or support (existence) laboriously” — to be just barely making it. “Eke out” can also mean to supplement an income, as in “He eked out his meager paycheck by participating in medical studies for money.”

(By the way, for the spelling-challenged, the eke in eke out a living is not the same as in Eek, a mouse!)

Visual Dictionary: Effigy

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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:

effigy

“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

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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

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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

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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.