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Roots be Damned! GRE Vocabulary Can Spring from Exotic Tongues

Did You Know?

English is a voracious language—wherever it encounters a new word, it swallows it up and makes that word one of its own. As a result, many words from foreign tongues and distant dialects have made their way into the English language. They’ve also made their way onto the GRE.

And on these GRE vocabulary words, there is no way roots can help you. You either know the vocab, or you don’t.


Picayune would make for a good 2,000-dollar jeopardy clue, one which would probably read something like this:

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Don’t trifle with us–this word comes from Cajun country via France and refers to a 19th century coin of little value.

What is picayune, would be the correct answer (thanks, Alex!).

Derived from Cajun via Provencal France, picayune refers not only to a coin but also to an amount that is trifling or meager. It can also refer to a person who is petty. Therefore, if I’m being picayune, I’m fussing over some trivial point.


This word means an outcast. It comes from Tamil, a language spoken in South India and Northeast Sri Lanka. While India is on the other side of the world (at least from where I’m sitting), it should come as no surprise that we have acquired words from Tamil. After all, the British (remember, the people who “invented” English) colonized India and greatly influenced her for more than a century. The influence went both ways, as we now have words like pundit, meaning an expert in a particular area. And any pundit on geography and linguistics can tell you that another common language spoken in India is English.


This word is fun to say. It definitely wouldn’t be fun to see on the GRE, if you didn’t know what it meant. So let’s make sure that doesn’t happen. A nabob is a wealthy, influential person. This word also comes from Hindi, and was originally used by Indians to describe a wealthy British person living in India. While it is not as common as pundit and pariah, nabob applies to many living here in the U.S., though I don’t think it a good idea to call Donald Trump a nabob to his face.


This word comes from Swahili and means master. The word was originally from Arabic, and meant father.


Okay, German is by no means a distant tongue, or for that matter, an exotic one. Zeitgeist, however, doesn’t look anything like your typical English word. Translated literally from German, zeitgeist means “time-ghost”. In terms of an actual definition, zeitgeist means spirit of the times.

Each decade has its own zeitgeist—the 1990s was a prosperous time in which the promise of the American Dream never seemed more palpable. The zeitgeist of the 2000’s was a curious admixture of fear and frivolity; when we were not anxious over the state of the economy and the world, we escaped into reality T.V. shows, either those on popular network or the ones we would create ourselves on Youtube.

The Takeaway

A good idea while learning GRE vocabulary is to look at the origin (or etymology) of the word. Doing so can oftentimes yield a fascinating back story on a word. And don’t forget—the more associations you have with a word (especially interesting ones), the more likely you’ll be to remember that word. And that’s no picayune matter.

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