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A Unique Chemical Reaction– GRE Vocabulary from the Lab

Some GRE vocbulary words come from technical fields, such as chemistry. Depending on context, these words can sometimes take on very different definitions. Other times, their usage remains relatively unchanged after they’ve made the transition from the lab to our lives.


There aren’t too many words in the English language that, without any change in spelling, can be a noun, verb, or an adjective. Precipitate, one such word, conjures up the image of technicians in lab coats, mixing test tubes. The precipitate (n.) is part of the solution left inside a test tube (or any other container used in labs these days). This definition, though, is not important for the GRE.

The verb and the adjective definitions, however, are. To be precipitate is to be hasty and rash. To precipitate something, such as a government precipitating a crisis, means to make something happen all of sudden.

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An amalgam, in the chemistry sense, is an alloy made of mercury and some other metal (formerly used, before the health scare, as part of our dental fillings). Generally speaking, an amalgam is a mixture of two or more things.

The band’s music was an amalgam of hip-hop and jazz. 


In chemistry, a solvent is any substance able to breakdown or dissolve another substance. Outside the lab, to be solvent is to be able to pay off one’s debts. To be insolvent, on the other hand, is not to be able to pay off one’s debts.


In chemistry, when one substance speeds up a chemical reaction, that substance is said to be a catalyst. Broadly speaking, anything that speeds up (or precipitates) an event is a catalyst.


I know…mercurial has already graced other word lists. So, why beat a dead horse? Well, this equine is anything but dead, and could very well show up on the GRE test day.

For those who missed mercurial on previous blog posts (here and here!), or who have since forgotten this slippery word, to be mercurial means to change constantly in terms of personality or mood. Typically, we say a mercurial person is moody and unpredictable. When you think of actual mercury—you know, that strange liquid inside thermometers, not the planet—it too is slippery and constantly changing (do not put this to the test—mercury is highly toxic). This poisonous quality, though, did not make it into the definition of mercurial. Someone who is mercurial is simply moody.

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