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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Words from GRE Reading Passages


I thought I’d add a little twist to this week’s word list. Since the words are taken from an article, it allows me to actually take phrases (or at least word pairings) that might be difficult to understand. It’s a little experiment, but it might end up being helpful, especially since the GRE is fond of using multiple words in the answer choices of text completions.


Republican or Democrat, right-brained or left-brained individuals, cat people or dog people, extrovert or introvert—dichotomies abound all around us. A dichotomy is a split or division (dicho– two, tomo– to cut) between two things that are very different.


You can be perturbed in many ways: a strange scratching outside your door in the middle of night; a big test the next day; that creepy guy sitting next to you on public transportation. Unsettling and anxiety inducing are two ways to think of perturbed, lest you become perturbed by the test experience and blank on the definition test-day.

Perturb can also mean to cause something to alter its usual path (the ocean liner perturbed by roiling currents), a meaning that often manifests itself more often—and figuratively—in the word perturbation, which means a deviation in the usual functioning of things.

The government websites experienced a perturbation when experienced hackers were able to breach its firewalls.


From the French for branches, ramifications focuses on the consequences—those branching aftereffects—of something. Whenever the government passes a law it—we hope—has carefully considered the ramifications. Lowering the legal drinking age to 18 (something I hope the government never passes) could have serious ramifications: more traffic deaths, a higher incidence of alcohol related diseases.

The ramifications of not learning the meaning of ramification will be minor (a mere twig); the ramifications of not learning any vocabulary for the GRE could be huge.


Rarely do adverbs not ending in –ly make this list. But insofar, a combination of ‘in’ ‘so’ and ‘far’ (how’s that for etymological sleuthing?) is one such word. So what exactly does a combination of these three words mean? To the extent.

Cryptic Allusiveness

So here are those vocab couplings I was talking about earlier. Cryptic means mysterious or obscure, usually intentionally so. An allusion is a reference to something else. If an author mentions those “star-crossed lovers”, he or she is alluding to Romeo and Juliet. A book that uses such allusions is allusive; a book that uses allusions that very few tend to pick up on, then you could say it’s cryptic allusiveness.

It’s hard to give such examples that are familiar (they’ve have to be cryptic, after all). A good example of a source—actually an entire book—that relishes in cryptic allusiveness is James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Scholars, and even the quasi-scholarly, will spend years deciphering exactly what Joyce was referring to in such colorful sentences as:

“Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Don’t worry: that won’t be on the GRE.

Esoteric Vanities

Esoteric, a high-frequency GRE word, describes knowledge that is possessed by only a few. In other words, if a field of knowledge is not widely known it is esoteric. 1950 French films, the history of stamps, or difficult GRE words are all esoteric fields.

We are not talking about little known bathroom mirrors (a second meaning of vanity) but of a pride that is little known. An esoteric vanity could be topiary, which is the sculpting of one’s garden to resemble ornamental shapes, sometimes even animals. Spending hours each day sculpting elephants from ones hedges strikes me as an esoteric vanity. As for how this coupling—indeed any of the words above are used—are used in an actual article, look no further than this month’s article.

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