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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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13 Responses to GRE Vocab List: Religious Words

  1. Prasad N R March 31, 2018 at 10:56 pm #

    I have become effete over remembering statements like “Elon Musk is not a felon” just to remember words.

  2. ZR April 1, 2015 at 10:53 am #

    “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”

    Ha! I love the use of anathema here! Lovely, humorous example. Bravo.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele April 1, 2015 at 3:48 pm #

      Thanks 🙂

  3. Aman March 27, 2012 at 9:51 am #

    Hi Chris ,
    Is catholic with lower case of ‘c’ means diverse….?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 28, 2012 at 11:28 am #

      Yes, with a lower case ‘c’ catholic means universal/diverse.

  4. John February 25, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    Greetings Chris,

    Thanks for another great post! I’m a regular Clemmonsdogparker and had a quick request.

    I was wondering if you would consider doing a post on the use of idioms in the text completion type questions? It would be really helpful to get your insight when tackling such questions.



    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      That’s a great idea! There are many phrasal constructions that rarely make it into the colloquial swing of things. I’ll put that on the schedule. Should be up some time next week!

      • John February 29, 2012 at 1:56 am #

        Hi Again Chris,

        I was also looking for a post on the blog that suggests an approximate pacing strategy for the Verbal section especially. I was wondering if you could help.

        What are your thoughts with regards to time allocation say for the RC type questions? Broadly speaking MGRE and other sources suggest 1.5mins per questions (on average), though I really struggle to keep time on the longer (60-70 line) passages.

        Furthermore, When I practice the LSAT passages I find that to answer 6-7 questions on a single passage requires a good read which takes between 3-4 minutes. (again 60-70 lines). Indeed, if I rush its a trade off with accuracy.(I do get 70-80% of the answers right if I take a few extra minutes).

        Lastly, I try my best to do the ‘Big Picture’ reading though I find that without at least glancing through the actual contents in the paragraphs its hard to answer the questions. (Especially the more subtle contextual specific type ones as opposed to the global/generic ones)

        What would you advise, Improve reading speed perhaps, or just keep practicing?

        Sorry for a rather comprehensive dump but I reckon you’re advise can be of immense help. Thanks.

        • Chris Lele
          Chris February 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

          Hi John,

          You definitely pose a great question :).

          Indeed, I think it merits a blog post. I will come up with one in a few days.

          As for the quick answer to your question – you will need a little bit longer per question for the RC, because you have to take into account the reading of the passage. Text Completions and SE should take about a minute, on average, giving you closer to 2 minutes per question (including the time reading the passage) to answer the question.

          One last thing: I realize I may have miscommunicated something.The big picture is important to help you answer the questions. But to do so you must go back to the relevant part of the passage. But definitely go back. Answering a line reference question based on raw memory requires a phenomenal retention that is beyond the cognitive powers of about 99.99% of the population :).

          • John February 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

            Hi Chris,

            Thanks a lot for the reply.

            I wanted to add that I wouldn’t dare to answer the specific type questions without going back to the passage. It does take a few extra seconds but not doing so is a recipe for disaster .In fact thats the reason why I broached the topic.

            Getting back my question, I tried close to 2 minutes per questions (including the passage) and it worked very well for the first section.However when I met with the increasing number of long 3 blank text completions on the harder section 2 , It took me close to 1.5mins (or slightly more) to get through many of them during the actual test. I got flummoxed and it went downhill thereafter. I must admit I never used the mark function and having seen your de-brief video, perhaps I should have picked my battles during my first go through section 2.(or even otherwise 🙂 )

            What are your thoughts?


            • Chris Lele
              Chris March 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

              You bring up some up good points!

              The 1-minute is an average. Some of the easier sentence equivalence questions can take 30-seconds, giving you more time for the 3-blank text completions.

              But you’re right: pick your battles wisely. A 100-word text completion with treacherous syntax and vocab to boot is worth the same points as the easiest text completion.

              So all in all, I say you are on the right path to pacing. Make sure not to obsess over the easy ones. Answer them quickly, and judiciously pass on the monster text completion unless you have enough time at the end.

              Hope that helps!

  5. vaisnavi February 25, 2012 at 1:16 am #

    Pontiff, Episcopacy,Prelate,cleric and many more 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

      Indeed :).

      The “religious” vocab could stretch from acolyte to votive.

      I’ll be coming out with another one soon!

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