Articles published in July 2010

Call Me Ishmael


I was leaving Jack’s Stir Brewed Coffee on Front Street down by the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan when I was surprised to see — up around the second story of a building — the word circumambulate carved into stone:

I had to blow up the picture later (click to enlarge) to read that this is a quote from Moby Dick:

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see? — Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep.

One synonym for bulwark is rampart, as in “O’er the ramparts we watched” from the Star-Spangled Banner. The word bulwark is used metaphorically much more often than is rampart, though. For instance, a person might say:

She purchased very tight pants and kept nothing in her refrigerator but vodka and aspirin: these were her bulwarks against weight gain.

Visual Dictionary: Cog


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

This is a cog. It is a small gearwheel.

Actually, the little teeth (“tenons”) coming out of it are called cogs, and the whole thing is can be called a cogwheel, but when most people say cog, especially in a metaphorical way, they mean the whole thing, the cogwheel.

In a literal sense, a cog or cogwheel “transmits successive motive force to a corresponding wheel or gear.” Usually, a lot of cogs work together, such as in this clockworks:

Metaphorically speaking, a cog is a person in a company or organization who does very routine tasks. If you’re a cog, you might be doing necessary work, but you might feel as though anyone could do your job, and as though you are not very significant. No one wants to be “a cog in the machine.”

Try this sample Antonyms problem:


Choose your own answer, then click “more.”

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Brand Name Vocab: Alleviate with Aleve


Aleve is a painkiller whose name derives from alleviate: to lessen or make easier to endure. Pretty good name for something that kills headaches, no?

English is replete with words for this concept: mitigate and palliate are pretty direct synonyms (palliate occurs often in the term palliative care, which is medical care provided to people with incurable illnesses).

Other words related to the idea of decreasing or diminishing include abate and attenuate. Words related to diminishing the anger of others, specifically, include placate, propitiate, conciliate, and appease.

Interestingly, nearly all of these words denote an action performed by someone on something or someone else. As in, Some people find that chewing gum attenuates the desire for sweets, or I’m headed over to grandmother’s house to attempt to palliate the damage caused by the risqué wedding DJ.

Abate, however, can be used with an object (The Senate voted to abate the tax) or without an object (The rain abated). These differences can be important in GRE Antonyms and Analogies questions.

Enigma! Paradox! Conundrum!


What is the difference between an enigma and a paradox?

A simple answer to that question is simply that an enigma is something puzzling; a paradox is an apparent contradiction. For instance:

Archaeologists have recently uncovered evidence of a new civilization, but since we have no way of reading its writing, that civilization may remain an enigma for some time.

A common paradox is “If God is omnipotent, is he so strong he can make a wall that not even he can tip over?”

The word conundrum can also be used to simply refer to anything that is puzzling, but its more specific definition is “a riddle, the answer to which involves a pun or play on words, as What’s black and white and read all over? A newspaper!.”

The word sphinx can refer to someone who is enigmatic or full of riddles. A mirage is an optical illusion, especially in the desert, or simply anything illusory. A phantasmagoria is a shifting series of illusions.

It’s hard to have a relationship with such a sphinx; even our marriage therapist couldn’t get him to communicate directly.

Once the accountant’s tricks were exposed, it became apparent that the company’s profits were just a mirage.

Until the anesthesia wore off, her mind was a hallucinatory phantasmagoria of horrors.

And finally, here are some adjectives used to describe the mysterious: occult, cabalistic, esoteric, and arcane.

Below is the musical group Enigma’s 1994 hit Return to Innocence, which, if you haven’t seen it, features a unicorn running backwards.


Talking Like a Fancy-Pants: Florid vs. Bombastic


English has many words to describe all-too-fancy writing. A good one is florid, which means “flowery” — that is, using an excess of adjectives, figurative language, and, often, unnecessary descriptions of the landscape.

Some people think Hawthorne was a rather florid writer:

The Scarlet LetterLike all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison.

Bombastic writing has the added element of being pretentious. From Christopher Marlowe:

Our quivering lances, shaking in the air,
And bullets, like Jove’s dreadful thunderbolts,
Enroll’d in flames and fiery smouldering mists,
Shall threat the gods more than Cyclopean wars;
And with our sunbright armour, as we march,
We’ll chase the stars from heaven, and dim their eyes
That stand and muse at our admired arms.

Fun fact: bombast was once padding material used to puff up clothes!

Florid and bombastic writing is sometimes referred to as purple prose (since purple was once a sign of royalty, and sometimes lower-class people would display little bits of purple on their clothes to try to seem fancy). The Wikipedia page quotes several examples from Edward Bulwer-Lytton (the “It was a dark and stormy night” guy):

Other instances of purple prose quoted from the novel include “As soon as the Promethean spark had been fully communicated to the lady’s tube” (meaning Once the lady lit her pipe), “a nectarian beverage” (wine), “a somnambular accommodation” (a bedroom), and so on.

And finally, don’t forget grandiloquent and magniloquent, two more words for talking like a fancy-pants.

Vampires and Moon-Girls: More Vocab in Harry Potter


Wikipedia’s list of Harry Potter characters is a veritable trove of names based on Latin and Greek roots.

The girl pictured at right is Luna Lovegood. Luna’s name comes from the root for the moon, which also gives us lunar and lunacy, which was originally thought to be associated with the changing states of the moon. (This is not a likely GRE word, but you might also be interested to know that lunambulism is “sleepwalking only in the moonlight”).

But even more fun than that is Sanguini the Vampire (the tall guy on the left!)

If you speak French, Spanish, or another Romance language, Sanguini’s name might remind you of that language’s word for “blood.” There are at least two important GRE words related to this root:

Sanguine means “cheerful; reddish, ruddy.” The Ancient Greeks thought the body was ruled by the “Four Humors”: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile (this idea also gives us the words bilious and phlegmatic). To be sanguine was to be ruled by the blood — that is, having a reddish, healthy complexion, which it was thought would also make one cheerful.

However, the “blood” idea leads much more directly to the word sanguinary, which means “bloodthirsty” — just like Sanguini.

Incidentally, consanguineous means “related by blood,” and “sangria,” the alcoholic beverage, also comes from the same Latin root (via Spanish).

Pop Quiz: Talkative Vs. Non-Talkative


pop quizPop Quiz!

Below are eight words: four of them mean talkative or wordy. Four of them mean not talkative, or using few words.

Put each in the correct category, then click “more.”


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Vocab at the Movies: Atonement


AtonementThe 2007 film Atonement, starring Keira Knightley, is the doleful story of a woman attempting to right a wrong she committed as a thirteen year old in 1935 — a wrong that ruins the lives of her older sister and her lover.

Atonement means “satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.”

A person who atones for a wrong is contrite.

You could also say that a person who does penance or makes recompense for his wrongs is redeemed, or that he is absolved of his peccancy.

A person who does penance could also be said to be penitent (antonym: impenitent). The word penitent comes from the Latin word for punishment, which also gives us penal and penitentiary. Also relatedly, if you did something in a non-punishing way, you could describe it with a very interesting adverb:

While it’s true she was still angry at him, she wanted to emphasize that she canceled his plane ticket only for financial reasons — that is, she did it wholly unpenally.

Brand Name Vocab: Battle of the Shampoos


As the jingle goes: “Sometimes you need a little Finesse … sometimes you need a lot.”

Can this shampoo give you 1) extreme delicacy in actions or tastes?
2) skill in handling a difficult or highly sensitive situation?
3) a trick, artifice, or stratagem?

While a nattily-dressed person could be said to have a pert outfit, one’s parents might very well say something like “Don’t be pert with me, young lady!” That is, pert has a few different meanings.

Can this shampoo make you impertinent?
Chic? Lively?

Now, if only someone made a shampoo called Omniscient or Pecunious.

Imago, Mnemonic, Sinistral: More Vocab in Harry Potter


Here’s a rundown of several more characters from the Harry Potter series — while many of these characters didn’t make it from the books to the films, their names are nevertheless replete with lexical references!

harry potterThe Gaunt family (Marvolo, Merope, and Morfin) bears a surname meaning “thin, bony, grim.”

Inigo Imago (“author of The Dream Oracle“) has a surname with two interesting meanings: an imago is either an adult insect, or an “idealized version of a loved one” (if you’re an adult still thinking of your mother the way you did when you were two — well, that’s pretty weird, and that’s an imago).

Mnemone Radford (who “developed memory modifying charms”) quite appropriately has a first name derived from mnemonic.

An employee at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes has the name Verity (what a trustworthy person to have working in your shop!)

Hogwarts Professor of Astronomy Aurora Sinistra might sound a bit dangerous: she has a last name deriving from the same root as sinistral and sinister. Both of these words simply come from the root for “left” (as opposed to right), but sadly, in virtually all cultures, left-handed people have been regarded with some derision and suspicion, and the word “sinister” now means “evil.”