You might think you know how to memorize GRE vocabulary. However, a lot of what we learned in school about memorization—and about learning—has turned out to be inefficient or outright incorrect. There are faster and easier ways to learn GRE vocabulary than just staring at flashcards or repeating the words over and over, and they aren’t all obvious! Here are our best science-based GRE vocabulary tips for speeding up your vocabulary acquisition. Read more
Hopefully there are a lot of GRE words you learned in school – particularly because lots of GRE words come from literature, science, mathematics, music and art, and foreign languages. You probably even studied many of them when and if you studied for the SAT and ACT.
But some GRE vocab words aren’t learned in the school curriculum, but in the language of school itself. Here are fifteen words whose content is related to school.
(1) Expel. Most of us know the word “expel” in terms of school – the greatest threat a school has to offer is to expel you, or kick you out.
That’s the context in which we’re used to hearing “expel”, but it could apply any time someone is deprived of his or her membership or even anytime something is removed, gotten rid of, or thrown out. You can expel a gum wrapper from your car window, or expel a drunkard from a bar, for example.
(2) Punctuate. You probably remember learning about punctuation, marks such as commas or periods that you put within text. So yes, to punctuate something means to add punctuation to it. But it also means to occur at intervals throughout a period of time, or to be peppered with.
For example, US history has been punctuated by the passing of Constitutional amendments. They happen sometimes, and when they do, they interrupt or change the course of history. Someone’s speech can be punctuated with curse words, or someone’s life can be punctuated by bad break-ups.
(3) Tardy. “Tardy” is a word I’ve never heard used outside of a school setting. My high school, and all other high schools I know of, didn’t mark you “late”: they marked you “tardy”. Tardy means delayed or late, but it’s not just students who can be tardy. You can send a tardy reply to an email, or a bus can make a tardy arrival at the bus stop.
(4) Valediction. Most of us know that the valedictorian is the student with the best GPA, but that’s sort of a coincidence. That student is not called the valedictorian because he or she has the best grades – he or she is called the valedictorian because he or she gives the valedictory, or valediction, at the graduation ceremony (and is chosen for that job because of his or her good grades).
So what’s a valediction? That “diction” root should tell you it has something to do with speech, and it does – it’s a saying of goodbye. The valediction speech at graduation is a spoken goodbye to high school. So if you wave to someone in valediction, for example, you’re waving goodbye.
There are some vocabulary words related to animals that you may have no reason to know if you don’t normally read, write, or talk a lot about animals. Many of them are conventionally used to discuss animals or come from talking about animals, but are then used in other contexts.
Here are just 15 examples of some animal vocabulary! Many of these words have taken on a less literal meaning outside of the animal kingdom.
- Fleece. Fleece is the wool on a sheep or similar animal. So when something is “fleeced”, that literally means to cover with something, as skin would be covered with fleece. For example, one might describe the sky as “fleeced with clouds”. Figuratively, to fleece someone is to shake them down for money – similar to the expression “taking the shirt off someone’s back”, it implies stripping them in some way, much like removing fleece from a sheep.
- Molt. When an animal molts, it sheds its feathers, fur, hair or skin to make way for new growth. It’s a regular part of most animals’ life cycles. Sometimes, the word molt can be used figuratively to refer to shedding parts of the past to make room to grow or change, generally in a positive way.
- Ferret. A ferret is a curious, weasel-y creature that can sneak into and out of almost any tight spot. To “ferret” is to search around for something, or to tenaciously seek something out and find it. You will often see it used with the prepositions “out” or “around”; you can “ferret around” a messy drawer or “ferret out” the facts of a case.
- Carrion. Carrion is the decaying flesh of a dead animal, often food for another animal in the wild. (It’s also a pretty great Fiona Apple song, if you’re looking for a great song and a good mnemonic all in one.) It can be used figuratively to describe something destroyed and devoured by something else: “The executive pounced on the carrion of the rejected interviewee.”
- Chameleon. A chameleon is a lizard that can change its color to blend in with its surroundings. It’s not surprising that “chameleon” is often used metaphorically to describe a person who blends in with a particular surrounding that isn’t natural to him or her.
- Fodder. Fodder is food, generally for livestock, generally referring to dried feed or hay. That’s the literal meaning. Figuratively, fodder is anything that’s used as material for the use of sustaining something else. “His terrible decisions were fodder for our office jokes” or “desperate workers were fodder for his offers for overtime.”
- Plumage. Plumage is a word for a bird’s feathers, particularly used when those feathers are colorful or attractive. It might be used metaphorically to describe someone’s showy or attractive outfit or appearance.
- Earmark. To mark the ear of an animal to show your particular ownership of it is to earmark it, as one might so with a cow or sheep. Thus, to “earmark” something is to designate it for a particular purpose or owner. An earmark is also a characteristic or identifying feature, much like the particular earmark on an animal would identify who owned it.
- Gadfly. A gadfly is any fly that bites or bothers livestock. Based on that definition, we now use “gadfly” to describe an annoying person, especially one who provokes others by criticizing them. I’m sure you have a gadfly in your office.
- Prey. Prey is an animal hunted or killed by another animal for food, and to prey on an animal is to hunt it and kill it for food. Metaphorically, to prey on someone is to seek them out and destroy them or take advantage of them. A payday lender could prey on needy customers, or a salesman could prey on your ignorance of car prices.
- Menagerie. A menagerie is technically a collection of wild animals collected for people to view, like a zoo. More loosely, it has come to describe a strange, interesting, or diverse collection of people or things.
- Minnow. A minnow is a tiny fish. “Tiny” is the important part here, as a minnow would often go unnoticed in the sea, and be easily replaced by another tiny fish. Thus, a “minnow” can also be an unimportant person or organization. For example, you could say, “Tom’s Office Supplies is a minnow in the office supply store industry.
- Feral. A feral animal is a wild animal. It is generally used to describe an animal that is usually captive or domestic, such as a feral cat or feral dog. It is used more broadly to describe an animal, person, or action that is wild, undomesticated, or untamable. For example, the feral child running down the grocery store cereal aisle might give you a feral snarl when you ask her to calm down.
- Fancier. Most of the time, a fancier is someone who breeds or is particularly interested in a certain type of animal. It can be applied to describe anyone who is a connoisseur or enthusiast of any particular thing, however; one can be a wine fancier or a fountain pen fancier.
- Flounder. A flounder is a fish that swims and lies on its side. To “flounder” is to struggle or thrash around or to squirm. It can be used literally, as in “the child floundered in the muddy water”. It is often used figuratively as well: “on the stand, the witness floundered, stammering and back-peddling to the embarrassment of his attorney.”
Many words related to animals (or plants, for that matter) can be reinforced by a Google image search to help you associate them with pictures. That is especially true of animal-related words that don’t really have any other meaning or implication, such as crepuscular, dorsal, fauna, equestrian, herbivorous, ewe, and ornithologist.
Can you think of any other good animal-related GRE words?
Maybe by now, you all know that I hate vocab. It’s not my thing. It doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I have to make the flashcards, do the practice quizzes, and fight my way through it. One thing that really works for me is coming up with my own short, general description of a word. If I try to have just some idea of what it means, that’s probably what I’ll need for the test.
But sometimes, the reason a word is on the GRE is that we often us it wrong. Sometimes it’s just a common misunderstanding that’s caught on. Other times, it’s a word we’ve pretty much stopped using except in one context, where either one of the two meanings would make sense.
Want a couple examples?
- Peruse. Peruse doesn’t mean “to browse or glance something over”. It means “to read or examine carefully.” If you start using it that way in conversation, everyone will think you’re an idiot. But you should know it come GRE test day.
- Abscond. We usually only use this word in sentences like, “He absconded with the diamonds.” A lot of us think it means stealing, but it doesn’t. It means to sneak away, especially to avoid getting in trouble.
- Refute. We’re used to this word, and know that when you “refute” someone’s argument, you shut it down. But not just by disagreeing, as is commonly thought. “Refute” means to completely disprove something.
- Condone. We usually use this word in expressions like, “the school does not condone this behavior.” Well, the school might not approve of the behavior, but that’s not what “condone” means – it means “overlook” or “disregard”. If I condone what you’re doing, I don’t necessarily approve of it – I’m just not going to stop you.
- Consent. This one’s kind of like condone. If I consent to your argument, that doesn’t necessarily mean I like it. It just means I agree, even in a passive way or with a negative attitude. Read more
or your bookshelf, or radio, or whatever. When it comes to remembering GRE words, it really helps to link them to something you know.
Here are just ten examples of GRE words showing up in shows, movies, or books that you might know. If you’re a visual or auditory learner, try searching for GRE words that are bugging you on YouTube to see if any helpful references come up!
It might be clear after working your way through this post that these references come from the perspective of a 30-something American woman. The references that come to mind for you might be completely different, but the sentiment remains the same “ link the words to things you know, and they’re likely to stick with you.
- Leery: If you’re the right age to remember Dawson’s Creek, you know that Dawson Leery was always worried about someone breaking his heart. To be leery means to be guarded or wary and not trust others. We knew you never should have trusted Joey, Dawson. She broke your heart.
- Wily: Why was Wile E. Coyote so darn obsessed with that roadrunner anyway? He certainly did try some clever, crafty, tricky, sneaky stuff. Maybe that’s how he got his name, since that’s what wily means.
- Plucky: If you’re between the ages of 25 and 35, you probably remember Plucky Duck from Tiny Toon Adventures. The word plucky means courageous, brave, and game for adventure “ and Plucky was perfectly all those things, always coming up with egotistical schemes where he tried to undertake some mammoth feat.
- Craven: In The Secret Garden, Master Craven is so afraid to face life after his wife dies that he locks up her garden, retreats from the world, and even avoids their ailing son at any cost. Perhaps he got his name because craven means spineless, timid, or fainthearted. Don’t worry “ he gets it together by the end of the book.
Anyone who’s taken my GRE class can tell you that I’m not a vocab girl. I never took Latin, I pretty much don’t know any roots, and I’m terrible at learning foreign languages. So how did I get a perfect score on the GRE? For vocab, the biggest skill for me is mnemonic devices.
All for the game
I think it’s great that some teachers want to use the GRE as a way to inspire a love of learning in students. You’ll use this vocab all your life! You’ll sound so smart! Start reading the Economist every day! I just really? You’re an adult. You have infinite things you could learn about, and infinite resources to learn about them, and finite time to do it in. If you were passionate about vocab and wanted to learn more of it, you already would be! And who is really ever going to care if you can use puerile or penumbra in a sentence?
For me, studying for the GRE is all about the game, and the game here is getting GRE points. That’s it. I don’t need to know this word for life. I need to know it to get it right on the exam. And I like that mindset, because I feel like it presents me with a defined challenge that I can win. And I like to win.
Grouping to win.
I am not a great vocab learner. I never took Latin in high school, so I don’t know any roots. I did take Spanish “ but I was terrible at it. Ultimately for me, the best way to learn vocab is to learn vague definitions by grouping words together.
Most GRE questions can be better attacked if you know vaguely what a word means than if you have an exact definition memorized but you don’t really understand it. Sure, there are questions that depend on nuance of meaning. But if you have a basic understanding of a word, that’s almost always enough.
I find it easiest to learn vocab words by grouping them together. Two of my favorite groups are presented here. These groups contain a lot of words, so it’s helpful for both memory and for learning synonyms and antonyms.
To talk or not to talk? First, not to talk.
There are a LOT of words on the GRE that have to do with how talkative or quiet someone is. For example, the words reticent, taciturn, terse, laconic and brusque all basically mean not saying much. They are different in meaning from one another, to some extent. But I contend that you can get pretty far on the GRE without knowing that.