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GRE Vocab List: Religious Words

It’s not Sunday – but it is church day, at least as far as vocabulary is concerned. Below are words relating to the church or religion. A few of the words – such a cardinal – have a secondary definition that, while derived from the original church-based definition, is different enough from the original to warrant attention.

It is of course the second definition that we are more concerned with on the GRE.



When it comes time to elect the pope who gets together? The cardinals, of course. And when you’re watching baseball in St. Louis, and the players all of red birds on their uniforms, which team are you seeing? The cardinals, of course. And when you are on the GRE and you see the word cardinal? Well it has nothing to do with birds, baseball or popes.

Cardinal means of primary importance, fundamental. That makes sense when you think of the cardinals in the church – after all they do elect the pope. The bird happens to be the same color as the cardinals’ robes and St. Louis…I have no clue.

As if you needed any more associations – the expression, “cardinal sin”, retains the GRE definition of the word, and means primary. It does not refer to naughty churchmen.



This is a difficult word, and not one that would go on any top 1000 words you have to know for the GRE. But for those with a robust vocabulary, pay heed: if a I concoct a new religion and decide to take bits and pieces from other religions (I don a cardinal’s robe, shave my head a la Buddha, and disseminate glossy pamphlets about the coming apocalypse) then I have created a syncretic religion: one that combines elements of different religions.

You can probably see where this is going with the GRE definition – which tends to offer a little more latitude. Syncretic – more generally speaking – can refer to any amalgam of different schools of thought.

Jerry the shrink takes a syncretic approach to psychotherapy – he mixes the Gestalt school with some Jung and a healthy (or unhealthy) dose of Freud.



This one is easy. It means of or relating to the church. Out of all the words in the list, ecclesiastical is the only one that hasn’t taken on a more broad – or completely unexpected – definition. Speaking of unexpected, look at the word below…



This word comes from parish, a small ecclesiastical district, usually located in the country. The word still has this meaning, i.e. relating to a church parish, but we are far more concerned with the negative connotation that has emerged from the rather sedate original version.

To be parochial is to be narrow-minded in one’s view. The idea is if you are hanging out in the country, you tend to be a little cut off from things. The pejorative form– at least to my knowledge – is not a knock at religion.



We have many associations with Catholicism – from cardinals to mass, to nuns wielding crucifixes at frothing demons. Thus, it is somewhat surprising that a second definition of catholic – the GRE definition – is universal.

Or not, considering that Catholicism has a universal reach and, more importantly,the Catholic Church conducts mass in Latin. Catholic comes from the Late Latin catholicus, which means, as you can probably guess, universal.



A few hundreds years ago, many ran afoul of the church, and excommunications (and worse) were typical reprisals. If such was the case, the Pope actually uttered a formal curse against a person. This curse was called the anathema.

Today this word, in addition to a broader scope, has taken a twist. If something is anathema (n.), he, she, or it is the source of somebody’s hate.

The verb form of the word, anathematize, still carries the old meaning of to curse.

Anathema through the ages: Galileo was anathema to the church; Rush Limbaugh is anathema to those on the Left.



If a person willfully violates or destroys any sacred place, he (or she) is said to desecrate it. Tombs, graves, churches, shrines and the like can all be victims of desecrations. One, however, cannot desecrate a person, regardless of how holy that person may be.

The felon had desecrated the holy site, and was on the church’s Top 10 Anathema List.



Some believers turn against their faith and renounce it. We call this act apostasy, and those who commit it, apostates. Today the word carries a slightly broader connotation in that it can apply to politics as well.

An apostate of the Republican Party, Sheldon has yet to become affiliated with any part but dubs himself a “literal independent.”



This is a tricky word, and thus you can bet its one of GRE’s favorite. Sanctimonious does not mean filled with sanctity or holiness. Instead it refers to that quality that can overcome someone who feels that they are holier (read: morally superior) to everybody else.

Colloquially, we hear the term holier-than-thou. That is a very apt way to describe the attitude of a sanctimonious person.

Even during the quiet sanctity of evening prayer, she held her chin high, a sanctimonious sneer forming on her face. 



This is an interesting word. The definition that relates to the church is clearly negative, i.e. an iconoclast is one who destroys religious images. Basically, this definition applies to the deranged drunk who goes around desecrating icons of the Virgin Mary.

The applicability of this definition to GRE is clearly suspect. The second definition however happens to be one of the GRE’s top 100 words. An iconoclast—more broadly speaking—is somebody who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions. This use of the word is not necessarily negative:

According to some scholars, art during the 19th century had stagnated into works aimed to please fusty Art Academies – it took the iconoclasm of Vincent Van Gogh to inject fresh life into the effete world of painting. 

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