Manhattan Prep GRE Blog

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.

PopVocab: Ne-Yo’s Nattiness


The word natty means “neatly or trimly smart in dress or appearance.” The word is almost always applied to men, specifically men wearing suits or other sharp, businesslike menswear, and often occurs in its adverbial form, as in “nattily dressed.”

When I think of a nattily-dressed man, I think of R&B star Ne-Yo:

Select your answer to this GRE Antonyms problem before clicking “more.”

A. frowzy
B. chichi
C. dapper
D. hoary
E. fey

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Advocabulary: Copious Abatements!


The company Groupon (as in “group coupon”) cleverly posted this ad on

Copious simply means “plentiful, a lot of.” An abatement is a lessening or alleviation — or, “an amount deducted or subtracted, as from the usual price or the full tax.”

Copious abatements! A panoply of discounts! (See A Plethora of Words for a Plethora for more words that mean “a lot”).

I am now far more inclined to use the services of Groupon, now that they have become japingly bombastic.

Three-Letter Words: Don


donSome 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 don is to put on or dress in. You don your clothes every morning. (Well, I don’t know you personally, but unless you live in a nudist colony, I’m pretty sure you don clothes diurnally).

Try this GRE Analogies problem — choose your own answer before clicking “more”:

A. vie : vex
B. bilk : stymie
C. frighten : terrify
D. excise : insert
E. pan : win

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Words from Hindi: Avatar, Loot, Guru, and Pundit


taj mahalLast week, we saw a post about the word juggernaut, which is derived from Hindi. Today, we see more words that come to us from Hindi.

Avatar comes from Hindi, and was covered in the post Vocab at the Movies: Avatar.

Loot is a fairly common word in English (“The riots were characterized by violence and looting”), but loot has some fancier synonyms: pillage, plunder, and depredate.

Most of us know the word guru (a guide, leader, mentor, or expert — often used in the U.S. to indicate an advice-giver with a cult-like following), but another borrowing from Hindi is pundit, a learned person, expert, or authority, or a critic or commentator. Pundit is frequently used to refer to people, such as Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, and Rush Limbaugh, who express opinions via mass media.

English words from Hindi that are less likely to appear on the GRE include pajamas, shampoo, thug, verandah, bandana, bungalow, and cummerbund.

The Amazing Story Behind “Juggernaut”


A juggernaut, according to Wikipedia, “is a term used in the English language to describe a literal or metaphorical force regarded as unstoppable. It is often applied to a large machine or collectively to a team or group of people working together, or a growing political movement led by a charismatic leader, and often bears association with crushing or being physically destructive.”

A few days ago, a post about Vocabulary in The Sound of Music discussed the word roué, a scoundrel so bad as to “deserve” the punishment of being “broken on the wheel,” a grotesque medieval death sentence that involved much breaking of limbs.

Today we have another wheel-based word: the original “juggernaut” was a giant chariot that carried statues of gods in a religious procession (“juggernaut” comes from the Sanskrit जगन्नाथ Jagannātha, “Lord of the Universe”, which is a name for Krishna). English colonials in India reported Hindus throwing themselves under the wheels of the chariot as a religious sacrifice. Others regard this story as an English invention, saying that “the deaths, if any, were accidental and caused by the crowd and commotion.”

The image above (“The Car of Juggernaut”) is from the 1851 Illustrated London Reading Book (by way of Wikipedia).

This Time magazine article from 1940 powerfully uses juggernaut in context:

A band of 135 Finnish war veterans”volunteer Swedes and Finns as well as Norwegians”stood a desperate six-hour siege [against invading Nazi forces]. They manned even an old muzzle-loading cannon, which recoiled 18 feet and had to be hauled back into place after every shot. Nazi shock troopers finally blasted them out with mortars and flame…. Elsewhere the Nazi juggernaut rolled comfortably from town to town, in its own lorries and commandeered busses.

A similar word is steamroller. Literally, a steamroller is a construction vehicle that flattens everything in its path. So, to steamroll or steamroller someone is to force that person to do or accept something, or it can be to pass a bill in government by crushing opposition.

Brand Name Vocab: Quotidian


If you live in New York, Los Angeles, or any of 24 other cities in 19 different countries, you may be familiar with the cafe chain Le Pain Quotidien. The name is French for “the daily bread.”

In English, quotidian (note the different spelling) means “daily, everyday, commonplace” and can have the negative connotation of “mundane, unexceptional.”

Choose your own answer to this GRE Antonyms problem before clicking “more.”

A. diurnal
B. matutinal
C. sporadic
D. pedestrian
E. maudlin

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Vocabulary in The Sound of Music


This song from The Sound of Music contains several GRE-worthy vocabulary words:

This particular video is rather ineptly subtitled; here is a snippet of the real lyrics:

You are sixteen going on seventeen
Baby, it’s time to think
Better beware, be canny and careful
Baby, you’re on the brink

You are sixteen going on seventeen
Fellows will fall in line
Eager young lads and roués and cads
Will offer you food and wine

Totally unprepared are you
To face a world of men
Timid and shy and scared are you
Of things beyond your ken

The word canny is certainly related to uncanny, but the words are hardly antonyms. Uncanny means “mysterious, seemingly supernatural.” Here, Rolf is telling Liesl to be canny — that is, “careful, astute, prudent, shrewd.” See our post on sagacious for some synonyms.

One way to be canny is to stay away from roués and cads. If you have an American grandmother, she is well familiar with the word cad (“an ill-bred man, especially one who behaves in a dishonorable or irresponsible way toward women”) — several decades ago, a man who took you out on more than a handful of dates without proposing marriage could be considered a cad.

A roué is really quite a bit worse, though: “a lecherous dissipated man.” Roué comes from a French word for breaking a person on the wheel, a truly grotesque medieval punishment. The idea was, of course, that a roué deserved this punishment, which was considered to be reserved for criminals for whom a simple hanging was too merciful.

Finally, Liesel is supposedly “timid and shy and scared” of things beyond her ken. Ken means knowledge, understanding, or perception and often occurs as it is used in the song, in the idiom “beyond (someone’s) ken.” (“Ken” got an entire blog post here). Note that the subtitler in the video above has confused “ken” with “kin,” which means extended family.

Finally, while I know I may attract the ire of many ardent lovers of The Sound of Music, it must be said: this song is a little creepy.

“Your life, little girl, is an empty page that men will want to write on.”

The film came out in 1965 and, of course, was set in 1930’s Austria. While some people think of that era as more innocent, that song is a bit licentious, isn’t it?

Advocabulary: Hirsute is Not the Kind of Hair You Want


You know what’s not a good name for a hair salon?

Hirsute, which means hairy or shaggy and typically refers to body hair. Hirsutism is the medical condition of excessive growth of hair of normal or abnormal distribution, especially in women.

hirsute salma

Above: Salma Hayek in Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.

A related word (and a very common word on the GRE) is raze, which is exactly what a razor does. Raze can mean “shave or scrape off,” but isn’t only about hair: you can raze a building by demolishing it or leveling it to the ground.

Try this GRE Analogies problem:

A. galvanize : hard
B. macerate : solid
C. vulcanize : placid
D. desiccate : arid
E. extirpate : homogeneous

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