Fun with Etymologies on the GRE

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Fun with Etymologies on the GRE by Cat Powell

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Learning new words can be one of the most daunting parts of the GRE, particularly because the English language has such a large and varied vocabulary. This linguistic richness is the result, in part, of the language’s early history, which was shaped by German, Norman, and Scandinavian invasions, with each wave of arrivals bringing new contributions to the language.

In subsequent centuries, English continued to absorb new words from the wide array of languages that English-speaking peoples came into contact with. The word “avocado,” for example, comes to English via the Spanish “aguacate,” which originates with the Nahuatl name for the fruit: “ahuacatl.” The word “hazard,” on the other hand, derives from an old French dice game, “hasard,” which in turn has murky origins in older Spanish and/or Arabic vocabulary (possibly beginning with the Arabic “yasara,” which means “he played at dice.”)

Other words have less exotic origins, but equally interesting stories. The word “clue,” for example, comes from the old Germanic word “clew,” which referred to a ball of yarn. A “clew” is the tool that Theseus, a hero in Greek mythology, uses to escape from the maze that contains the monstrous Minotaur, a man with the head of a bull. Over time, the influence of this myth gave a new meaning to the word “clew,” eventually leading to our modern understanding of the word as a hint that helps one to unravel a mystery.

Most words, it turns out, have interesting histories, or etymologies. If you’re a language nerd like me, you might find these fun in their own right; learning etymologies can also be a great way to boost your vocabulary for the GRE.

Human brains generally love a good story (as anyone who’s ever binged on a TV series can testify). Etymologies give us interesting narratives about how and why words acquired their current meanings. By attaching these stories to the words you’re trying to learn, you immediately give yourself an easier way to remember that word. If I tell you my best friend’s name is Sirena, you may or may not remember that. However, if I tell you that she’s named Sirena because when she was born her mom thought she looked like a baby manatee (taxonomic order sirenia), well, you’re a lot more likely to remember that. (FYI: this is not a true story).

Of course, you can also make up your own stories about words, fitting them into narratives that are relevant to your life in some way. Etymologies are fun, though, because they give you added information about how to use that word correctly. The word etymology comes from Greek: “etymon” (true sense) + “logia” (the study of). The study of a word’s true meaning: this suggests that a word’s history, or etymology, tells us not only about how this word got to us, but also about the nuances of the word’s meaning. For this reason, professional literary translators often use etymologies to help decide whether a word in one language is a good match for a word in another.

For GRE purposes, it often isn’t enough to have just a rough sense of what a word means. The fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions, particularly the ones that ask you to pair synonyms, are often much easier if you have a very precise understanding of how a word is used. Etymologies can help you develop this understanding in a fun and efficient way.

So, as you begin making GRE flashcards, or if you’ve been studying vocabulary for some time and feel stalled, go online and look up etymologies for some of the words you’re learning. I like etymonline.com or Wiktionary, but there are lots of good free resources out there. Have fun! 📝


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cat-powell-1Cat Powell is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. She spent her undergraduate years at Harvard studying music and English and is now pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University. Her affinity for standardized tests led her to a 169Q/170V score on the GRE. Check out Cat’s upcoming GRE courses here.

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