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GRE Vocab Wednesday: How Awkward!

“To err is human” is a familiar saying, and applies to social situation. After all, everybody has blundered before his or her peers, whether by saying something inappropriate or behaving in an awkward manner. In honor of this tendency, I have five “awkward” GRE words for you to learn.



Ever done or said something that was embarrassing? You most likely have, and therefore you’ve committed a gaffe: a social bumbling that brings embarrassment to the bumbler. Luckily, your blunders have probably not been preserved for eternity. If you are the president of the United States, on the other hand, even the tiniest pause is dissected ad nauseam by pundits. Therefore, presidents are known for their gaffes, or their social blunders, situations in which a president ends up biting his lip.

Even the usually measured and thoughtful Barack Obama once, when on the Tonight Show, compared his substandard bowling to the Special Olympics. He later called the Special Olympics chair to apologize for his gaffe.

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In the movie Back to the Future the main character, Marty McFly travels back in time where he meets his father. While Marty is the embodiment of 80’s cool—a skateboard at his side and a feathery hair-do—his father, George McFly, has horn-rimmed glass with tape holding together the frames. George is dreadfully afraid to talk to any girl and is a bumbling mess when he does, uttering inappropriate things. Marty’s father is the embodiment of gauche, which means socially awkward and lacking grace.

Gauche is an interesting word etymologically speaking. It comes from the French for left, or on the left-hand side. Those who are left-handed, at least in Paris, are apparently much like Marty’s father. Finally, gauche begets us an interesting variant of itself: gaucherie. Not as common of a GRE word, gaucherie describes the awkward ways of somebody who is gauche. Marty’s father’s gaucheries include his attire and his ability to stop stuttering when speaking to a female.



Also from French, maladroit combines the Latin root mal-, which means bad, with the word adroit, which in French means on the right side. Adroit, which means skillful (because people who are right-handed are apparently skillful), is the opposite of maladroit, which describes somebody who is clumsy. The clumsy of maladroit is typically more physical, whereas the clumsy of gauche is more social.



When abroad, we are oftentimes unaware of the social customs of a country. When we breach these proprieties, we are said to be guilty of a solecism. During my first weeks in Seoul, Korea, where I lived for a few years teaching test prep, I was unaware that, after eating at a restaurant, one is not supposed to leave a monetary tip. I was disabused of this solecism when a friend who spoke Korean had to explain why my actions constituted a faux pas: in Korea, the hosts feel honored to serve their patrons and always behave as graciously as possible. This trait is part of their culture and does not come with a price tag—even in the form of gratuity. I guess you can say I was guilty of a Seoul-ecism.

Interestingly, a solecism can also be a breach of grammatical manners. Misplaced modifiers, dangling participles, etc. are all examples of solecisms. Finally, I should mention that a solecism is any breach in social etiquette—it doesn’t have to happen abroad.



Speaking of words, if a phrase is awkwardly constructed, a great word to describe it is infelicitous, a word that, with the addition of –in, becomes the opposite of felicitous, which means apt and appropriate. An infelicitous phrase, on the other hand, makes people in the room cringe, and the person guilty of the verbal gaffe blush. We wouldn’t call a person infelicitous—which would be an infelicitous expression itself. Infelicitous describes behavior, but more typically ill-chosen words.


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