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GRE Vocab Wednesday: I Don’t Appreciate that Tone!

We don’t always say what we mean, but we can often imply it quite clearly by injecting our words with an unmistakable tone. Below are several words in which a person’s words and tone combine to make for an unpleasant listening experience.



To be derogatory means to speak down at someone. For one, making fun of the way a person is dressed—middle schoolers know this all too well—by calling them a walking sartorial mishap (middle schoolers probably wouldn’t use that phrase though) is plainly derogatory. On the other hand, casually alluding to a clearance rack and a need for mothballs is snide: it is a way of indirectly putting someone down.


Baseball games are full of jeers specifically for the visiting team. If one of these players fails to make an easy catch close to the stands a fan is sure to mock him (“nice catch, buddy”). Sardonic takes mocking to a nasty degree. A sardonic comment hurled by fan would be something like “too bad they don’t make mitts large enough for you to actually catch a ball”. Of course, the way you say this is key: thinking bitingly sarcastic for the word sardonic.


A belittling tone is one you use to make a person feel small and unworthy. It’s like casting an evil spell on somebody: be little! If you are on the receiving end of such ill will, just remember that you don’t have to believe what somebody says about you.


If someone uses a smug tone, he or she is taking extreme pride in his or her accomplishments. That kind of tone can rub us the wrong way, since the person is putting him–or herself on a pedestal–even when they may be wrong. Oftentimes, I’ve found that if I’m watching a sporting event in which I know little about the two teams, I’ll find myself rooting for the team that comes across as less smug. For instance, they’ll sometimes flash a pregame clip of a player saying with a smug expression, describing how his team can’t possibly lose.


This word has two definitions, and thus two distinct tones, neither of which is pleasant. One meaning of presumptuous is where you overstep the lines of what is considered appropriate. If you see somebody cut in front of every one else in line, even if it is to ask the person behind the window, or whatever it is people are lining up for, that person is presumptuous. When dealing with a presumptuous person our response is often, “How dare they!”, or “Who do they think they are?”


From the verb to denigrate, which means to disparage or put down, a denigrating tone is very similar to a belittling one. Back when I was a kid, there was something called the WWF (which I believe is now the WWE). Before each match, one “wrestler” would say completing demeaning things about the other “wrestler”. “He’s a sissy with silly yellow pants”. The other would retort, “But you are almost as ugly as your mother”, or some other block-headed rejoinder. Every word was said in a denigrating tone.


This word doesn’t relate to size, but to cutting one down to size. In other words, a slight is an insult, one in which a person doesn’t show the proper respect. For instance, let’s say you are at the party of a host you don’t know very well. You mean to say thank you for the invite but you end up leaving without doing so. The host, if he or she is very sensitive, may interpret your behavior as a slight. That is, you insulted them by not showing the proper respect.


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