Articles published in May 2011

Memory Tricks: Baleful


Baleful means “full of menacing or malign influences; pernicious.” It’s actually pretty similar to minatory, from the post below.

Baleful doesn’t really sound like any other words we know, does it? It doesn’t mean “full of bale.” (Um, what? A bale by itself is a pile of hay and is completely unrelated.)

It turns out baleful comes from the Gothic balwjan, “to torment”. Not that helpful, right? Well, how about thinking about how Christian Bale was really menacing in The Dark Knight?


Christian Bale = Baleful! But not as baleful as The Joker!

Memory Tricks: Minatory


Minatory means “menacing or threatening.” Bullies are minatory. An approaching tornado could be minatory. You know what else is minatory? The Minotaur!

Abridged from Wikipedia:

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur, as the Greeks imagined him, was a creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man or, as described by Roman poet Ovid, “part man and part bull”. He dwelt at the center of the Cretan Labyrinth, which was an elaborate maze-like construction built to hold the Minotaur. The Minotaur was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus.

It turns out that minatory and Minotaur don’t actually share a common root (minatory shares a root with menace and Minotaur comes from Minos, king of Crete, and tauros, “bull.”)

But, if it helps us remember that minatory means threatening, then I think it’s a pretty helpful association. I mean, look at this:

Really minatory!

Memory Tricks: Nostrum


Happily, the world didn’t end this weekend! History did not reach its terminus, and we were not extirpated! (Also, I just want to say: I’m writing this post in advance.)

In honor of dubious prophesies, we have a memory trick submitted by Manhattan GRE Guided Self-Study student Susanne, for the word nostrum, which means “a medicine sold with false or exaggerated claims and with no demonstrable value; quack medicine; a scheme, theory, device, etc., especially one to remedy social or political ills.” (Note that in American English, scheme has a negative connotation.) From Susanne:

How do I remember the word NOSTRUM, you ask? I think of Nostradamus, who is renowned for his book of prophecies. But, did you know that Nostradamus was also an apothecary? If you are one (like me) to think that his prophecies are all wack and that he’s just a quack, how could you, then, trust the medicine he made? Well, I would think that his medicine is also quack, so when I need to recall the meaning of the word NOSTRUM, I simply think of this little formula: medicine from Nostradamus = NOSTRUM.

Thanks, Susanne!

Origin Stories: Balk


“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.

To balk is to refuse to proceed or to do something.

At the company retreat, he reluctantly agreed to participate in the ropes course, but balked at walking over hot coals as a trust exercise.

A related — and more mild — word is demur (show reluctance or object, especially for moral reasons, as in, His colleagues wanted him to tell the client that their sales would double, but he demurred.)

Balk comes from a word for a beam or ridge “ when a horse or mule balks, it stops short and refuses to proceed. Occasionally, balk is used as a noun for an impediment, much like a beam or ridge, or a defeat.

Good Things Start with “Eu-“


aristotleDid you know that “eu” is the Greek root for “good”?

Here are some “eu-” words you probably already know:

Here are some others you might enjoy:

  • Euphony – Harmony or agreeableness of sound.
  • Eupraxia – Normally coordinated muscle performance.
  • Eupepsia – Good digestion.
  • Eudaimonia – A state of happiness and flourishing, especially as understood by Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers.

This last word, eudaimonia, popped up recently in a Harvard Business Review post about living a meaningful life, mostly by eschewing consumerism.

The economy we have today will let you chow down on a supersize McBurger, check derivative prices on your latest smartphone, and drive your giant SUV down the block to buy a McMansion on hypercredit. It’s a vision of the good life that I call (a tiny gnat standing on the shoulders of the great Amartya Sen) hedonic opulence. And it’s a conception built in and for the industrial age: about having more. Now consider a different vision: maybe crafting a fine meal, to be accompanied by local, award-winning microbrewed beer your friends have brought over, and then walking back to the studio where you’re designing a building whose goal is nothing less than rivaling the Sagrada Familia. That’s an alternate vision, one I call eudaimonic prosperity, and it’s about living meaningfully well.

Of course, to understand this article, you would need to know the words hedonic and opulence.

Vocabulary is important! GRE students sometimes wonder, “Who uses all these words?” Nearly every published source worth reading, it turns out — not just the literary or liberal-arts ones.

Visual Dictionary: Countenance


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

Countenance as a verb means “approve or tolerate.”

But countenance can also literally mean face or “facial expression,” as in Her countenance was familiar “ did we know each other?

The metaphorical meaning makes sense when you think about a similar expression: I cannot look you in the face after what you did. (We would usually say I cannot face you when the speaker is the guilty party).

I saw you cheating off my paper, and I can’t countenance cheating “ either you turn yourself in or I’ll report you.

AdVocab: This “Unbiquitous” Car Is Apparently Intended for Well-Educated People Only


My apologies for the photo quality; I snapped this picture from the window of a cab in Boston.

This ad (“UNBIQUITOUS”) is playing on the word ubiquitous, which means “existing or being everywhere, especially at the same time.” A synonym is omnipresent.

Perhaps by advertising this make of automobile only to those who get this rather abstruse joke, the Hyundai company is ensuring that the car does, in fact, remain “unbiquitous.”

PopVocab: “Scotch” is a verb


From the UK’s Daily Mail:

Scotch isn’t just a drink! It’s also a verb!

Scotch means “to put a definite end to; crush; stamp out; foil,” as in to scotch a rumor; to scotch a plan.

Scotch can also mean “to injure so as to make harmless” or “to cut, gash, or score.”

Of course, the score being used in that definition is the one that means “to make (cuts, lines, etc) in or on” or “to record by making notches in” — for instance, you might score a door frame with a penknife as a cute way of recording a child’s height as he or she grows.

Some words similar in meaning to scotch:

I was going to wrap your entire house in toilet paper, but the rainstorm scotched my plans.

Vocab in the News: A “Peripatetic” Lifestyle


CNN ran this article about Osama bin Laden’s wives, which contained the rather fascinating fact that bin Laden’s fifth wife did not attend her own wedding, which was “an all-male affair.” The reason? “The bride was deemed to have consented to the marriage by traveling to Afghanistan, so her presence was not required.”

So how many wives did bin Laden have? The answer seems to be six, but not at all once. A bit of GRE vocabulary is important in understanding why.

He was first married at the age of 17 to a cousin, Najwa Ghanem, who was probably two years younger than him. They had 11 children, but after a peripatetic life together Najwa finally left him (and Afghanistan) a few days before 9/11.

Peripatetic means “walking around, itinerant.” Najwa wasn’t looking for a nomadic lifestyle, and left bin Laden a few days before 9/11. (But then she later helped arrange his third marriage. So, I guess they kept in touch.)

Similar causes resulted in the departure of bin Laden’s second wife:

Khadijah was unable to cope with their austere existence and returned to Saudi Arabia.

Austere means “severe in manner or appearance; uncompromising; strict; forbidding” or “rigorously self-disciplined and severely moral; ascetic; abstinent.”

This post on the UK’s The Independent adds to this idea of the bin Laden clan’s austere or ascetic lifestyle:

As the West’s public enemy No 1 for nearly a decade, the Osama bin Laden most of us have come to know was an uncompromising, merciless blood-letter…. But Bin Laden was also a family man. To those who knew him he was the Saudi millionaire turned warrior ascetic, who loved poetry and bracing walks in the mountains; who rarely ate meat and was staunchly committed to his kith and kin “ even when they publicly denounced him or abandoned his jihad.

Okay, let’s break it down:

Ascetic – Person who dedicates his or her life to contemplation and practices extreme self-denial for religious reasons, or any person who leads a very simple life abstaining from pleasures and worldly satisfaction.

Bracing – Stimulating, revivifying, energizing (almost always used to describe cold weather).

Staunch – Firm, steadfast, loyal, strong, substantial.

Kith and kin – Acquaintances and relatives. Kith originally meant “one’s native land” and thus came to mean neighbors, countrymen, etc. Kin means extended family and is in common use today.

Origin Stories: Bilk


“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.

To bilk is to cheat or defraud.

The con artist bilked many elderly people out of their savings, promising to cure illnesses from diabetes to cancer with only 36 monthly payments of $99.99 “ for which the victims received nothing but useless placebo pills.

Hoodwink, Swindle, Con, and Fleece are all verbs for cheating others. Fleece is perhaps more severe, having the connotation of taking everything from the victim, the way one sheers all of the fleece from a sheep.

Bilk can also be a noun for the person who cheats others (I hope that bilk goes to jail!) More obscurely, bilk can mean to “escape from, frustrate, or thwart.”

The word comes from the card game cribbage, where it means to play a card that keeps an opponent from scoring. Cribbage is a card game that uses a board like the one below to keep score.