Articles published in 2010

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.

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

Read more

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

Read more

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.