Manhattan Prep GRE Blog

Vocab in the Classics: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Part II


Welcome to Vocab in the Classics. Here we look at selections from Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Today we learn more about Ichabod Crane, protagonist of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

His appearance, therefore, is apt to occasion some little stir at the tea-table of a farmhouse, and the addition of a supernumerary dish of cakes or sweetmeats, or, peradventure, the parade of a silver teapot…. From his half-itinerant life, also, he was a kind of travelling gazette, carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house, so that his appearance was always greeted with satisfaction. He was, moreover, esteemed by the women as a man of great erudition, for he had read several books quite through, and was a perfect master of Cotton Mather’s “History of New England Witchcraft,” in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed.

Manhattan GRE’s blog is written by one of our real-live GRE instructors. She teaches in New York. To learn about Manhattan GRE’s classes, go here. To suggest a word or topic for the blog, email Thanks to adult spelling bee champ David Riddle for suggesting and providing content for this post.

Vocab in the Classics: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow


Welcome to Vocab in the Classics. Here we look at selections from Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Now, let us meet Ichabod Crane, the protagonist of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

There was something extremely provoking in this obstinately pacific system; it left Brom no alternative but to draw upon the funds of rustic waggery in his disposition, and to play off boorish practical jokes upon his rival. Ichabod became the object of whimsical persecution to Bones and his gang of rough riders. They harried his hitherto peaceful domains; smoked out his singing school by stopping up the chimney; broke into the schoolhouse at night… and turned everything topsy-turvy, so that the poor schoolmaster began to think all the witches in the country held their meetings there.

Choose your own answer to this GRE Antonyms question before clicking “more”:

A. exciting
B. conversant
C. inept
D. decorous
E. magniloquent

Read more

A Plethora of Words for a Plethora


English has a lot of words for a lot.

Hmmn. How else could I say that sentence?

Of course, no mention of “plethora” on a vocabulary blog could go unaccompanied by this clip from the 1986 Steve Martin classic, ¡Three Amigos!, which famously coined the phrase “a plethora of piñatas.”


Greek Deities: Vocab in Harry Potter


Although there is undoubtedly more esoterica to unearth, this will be our final post on characters from Harry Potter. (Although we do have another post coming on magic spells in Harry Potter).

owlHermes the Owl is, of course, named after the Greek god Hermes, who gives us the word hermetic, as in “hermetically sealed.” This might seem a bit weird until you realize that Hermes was not only the god of commerce, invention, cunning, and theft, but also the god of alchemy, which undoubtedly required sealing things in jars. Hermes was called Mercury by the Romans, hence the word mercurial.

Apollyon Pringle (“caretaker at Hogwarts before Argus Filch”) takes his name from the Greek god Apollo, who gives us apollonian — “calm, ordered, rational, balanced.”

Of course, that word might remind you of Apollonia from Prince’s Purple Rain; interestingly, the name Apollonia was suggested by Prince for the actress based on the character Apollonia Vitelli-Corleone from The Godfather. And somehow, we can trace all that back to Apollo.

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.”

Read more

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).