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GRE Vocabulary: Secondary Meanings

Secondary meanings have long been the bête noire of anyone who has seriously prepped for the GRE. With the Revised GRE afoot, secondary meanings are still a part of the lexical landscape. Over the next month, I will be writing several posts dealing with these tricky words.

Today, I’m going to touch on a specific type of secondary meaning: the figurative. That is, some words have both literal and figurative meanings. For example, a deluge, literally, is a flood – something many of us experienced directly over the weekend. Used figuratively, deluge can imply anything that is in great numbers. For instance, Hurricane Irene caused a deluge of reports regarding her projected path.

For the Revised GRE, you should be more concerned with the figurative meaning of words.  Below are five such words – be sure to add them to your vocabulary arsenal.


Literally, to imbibe is to drink, usually copiously. Figuratively, imbibe can refer to an intake of knowledge or information.

The professor was a font of erudition, and we imbibed his wisdom.

 Plato imbibed Socrates’ teachings to such an extent that he was able to write volumes of work that he directly attributed, sometimes word for word, to Socrates.


Speaking of floods, inundate is a synonym for deluge. Figuratively, to be inundated means to be overwhelmed by too many people or things.

Once inundated with 5,000 vocabulary words, GRE students now have to contend with somewhat fewer words.

 The newsroom was inundated with false reports that only made it more difficult for the newscasters to provide an objective account of the bank robbery.


If something gives off sparks, such as when photons collide, it is said to scintillate. Figuratively, scintillating describes someone who is brilliant and lively.

Richard Feynman was renowned for his scintillating lectures—the arcana of quantum physics was made lucid as he wrote animatedly on the chalkboard.


If the sky darkens, and becomes night, it is, unsurprisingly, benighted. However, if a people are benighted (this word is usually reserved for the collective), that group falls in a state of ignorance.

Far from being a period of utter benightedness, The Medieval Ages produced some inestimable works of theological speculation.


Need to strengthen steel by giving it a final coat? Or, perhaps you want to get an an indolent rodent moving with an electric shock? Well, in both cases, you would literally be galvanizing. Figuratively, to galvanize is to excite to action or spur on.

At mile 23 of his first marathon, Kyle had all but given up, until he noticed his friends and family holding a banner that read, “Go Kyle”; galvanized, he broke into a gallop, finishing the last three miles in less than 20 minutes. 



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