Articles published in November 2010

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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Advocabulary: Sundry


What can you buy at a sundry shop?


Oh, all kinds of stuff. Sundry means “various, diverse, miscellaneous” and often occurs in the (rather redundant) expression “various and sundry.” gives another expression, “all and sundry,” which means “everyone, both collectively and individually.” A sundry shop would be a good place to get a Snapple, a newspaper, and a tin of shoeshine; the idea of sundries includes the idea that the items are of nominal value.

A related word is notions. A notion is usually a vague idea (“I had a notion about that, but I hadn’t really thought it through”), but can also refer to “small articles, as buttons, thread, ribbon, and other personal items, esp. such items displayed together for sale, as in a department store.”

Advocabulary: Daffy’s on Broadway


This display was seen in a window of the Financial District location of Daffy’s, a discount clothing retailer:


Pulchritude is an ugly-sounding word simply meaning “physical beauty.” Its provenance is the Latin pulchritÅ«dō, also meaning beauty. I was unable to find any other words in English using this root (that’s why it sounds so weird!), although I did discover, in an online gardening forum, that there is an Aeschynanthus pulcher that is also known as a “lipstick plant,” which makes a certain sort of sense.

Since we’re talking about beauty, now seems as fine a place as any to mention that, in India, the word “homely” means “domestic” (as in, a quality a traditionally-minded man would want in a traditionally-minded wife), but in U.S. English, homely means “plain, unattractive,” and is a somewhat less popular attribute in a romantic partner.

Just Google the phrase “homely wife,” and you’ll get lots of Indian matrimonial ads containing phrases that, in U.S. English, are oxymorons: “Professional male seeks beautiful and homely wife.”

Three-Letter Words: Gin


definitionSome 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.

Today’s word is gin? It is!

Gin is not only a liquor made from grain mash and juniper berries, but also a machine for separating the fibers of cotton from the seeds (like the “cotton gin” from history class), a trap or snare for hunting, or a machine for hoisting.

Here is a cotton gin on display at the Eli Whitney Museum:

cotton gin

Try the following Analogies question — choose your own answer before clicking “more.”

A. vise : shrinking
B. awl : compiling
C. harrow : planting
D. winch : turning
E. combine : harvesting

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Easily Confused Words: Impetus and Impetuous


impetus ≠ impetuous

Impetus is a stimulus, impulse, or force that moves something else to action.

Impetuous means impulsive, rash, characterized by sudden action.

Seeing the Vin Diesel classic “XXX” was the impetus behind my decision to skydive.

My decision to jump out of an airplane after seeing an actor do so in a movie was a bit impetuous.

Visual Dictionary: Loupe


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

This is a loupe. Most of us would call it a “magnifying glass.”

Let’s try a sample problem.


Choose your own answer, then click “more.”

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Pop Quiz: Positive or Negative?


quizPop Quiz!

Because the GRE is a computer-adaptive test, chances are you’re going to see words you don’t know. When that happens, one useful strategy is to try to ferret out whether the unknown words have positive or negative connotations. You can do this using roots, your knowledge of similar words in English or Romance languages, or just your “gut” feeling.

Decide whether each word is positive, negative, or neutral, then click “more.”


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