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GRE Vocab Wednesday: The Dirty Dozen

These words tend to show up over and over again on the GRE. The reason ETS chooses these words is hard to say. Some are important words for a grad student to know; others are just easily confusable words (and the GRE always like those kinds of words!).



Prosaic sounds like mosaic, a word many ascribe positive characteristics to. But prosaic does not relate to mosaic; and it does not have a positive connotation. Prosaic means dull, ordinary, lacking imagination.

This is a prosaic sentence.



Equivocal does not mean equal. It means vague, open to multiple interpretations.

The director’s intent is equivocal: he has said little about the movie, and even viewers have had wildly divergent interpretations.



If somebody is stubborn and will not change his or her views, that person is intransigent.

Despite the exorbitant costs entailed, the mayor remained intransigent regarding the implementation of a new subway system.



For some reason, people often think ambivalent is synonymous with indifferent. This could not be further from the truth. To be ambivalent means to have mixed feelings.

Interestingly, many who’ve taken the GRE are somewhat ambivalent upon finishing: while they are clearly relieved to be done with all the arduous preparation, they miss learning all the interesting words.



Nope, diffident does not relate to different, besides the fact that they are different words. Diffident means shy, lacking confidence.

She was so diffident that even when she knew the answer to a teacher’s question, she would pinch her shoulders together and look down.



Sanguine just doesn’t sound like its definition: cheerfully optimistic. If anything, it sounds like it means pessimistic. As long as you remain sanguine about how well you will do test day, you shouldn’t mix up this word.

She had a low GPA and was not sanguine about her prospects upon graduating from college.   



To admonish means to warn beforehand. Imagine a little kid who likes nothing more in the world than his gooey chocolate chip cookies. He has already had a few cookies, and just as he reaches for a fifth, his mother admonishes him: “don’t eat any more, or you’ll feel sick.”

The teacher admonished his students not to try the cram for the 1,000 word vocabulary quiz.



Something that is subtly destructive is insidious. Plaque is insidious. It slowly eats away at your gum line, as you blithely go own consuming chocolate chip cookies (don’t worry – I’m not admonishing you).

The effects of radiation are insidious: only after many years, once a chronic disease surfaces, does a person realize that they have been exposed over the course of their lives.



This word is anything but benign if you go into the test not knowing what it means. To be benign is to be harmless.

Spending five minutes in the sun will have a relatively benign effect on your skin; spending fifteen minutes, on the other hand, can already lead to burning and fine wrinkles. 



If someone looks down on you contemptuously, that person is being supercilious. For instance, if you roll into a five-star restaurant in Manhattan wearing jeans and t-shirt, the maître d’ is likely to give you a supercilious look.

The travel writer’s supercilious tone towards others he met on his cross-country trip endeared him to those with a misanthropic bent.



To make something less bad is to mitigate it. You can mitigate your hunger by eating. You can mitigate poverty by donating to charitable causes.

His self-serving excuses did little to mitigate the resentment students felt after he had been caught stealing their homework notes. 



To engender is to give rise to something. This something could be your feelings, a situation, or a general state of affairs.

Few issues engendered as much controversy as the visiting delegates comments regarding the government’s hospitality. 


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21 Responses to GRE Vocab Wednesday: The Dirty Dozen

  1. Deep Patel April 2, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    Hello Chris,
    I am really impresses form magoosh and as I’m INDIAN english is not my native language.

    I want to start preparing for GRE specially vocabulary part, so would you please tell me which kind of words I should learn and i would like to let you know that I already have gone through your book on vocab. and want to learn more words.So please tell me which kind of words i should start with.
    Thank you, 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele April 3, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

      Hi Deep,

      Thanks for your kind words :).

      I think a great place to start is Barron’s 1100 Words You Need to Know. It’s a vocab exercise book and it contains many beginner words, as well as many more advanced words. It’s great for self-study.

      Make sure to do plenty of reading, as the vocab ebook mentions. Note new words and make them part of your constantly burgeoning vocab.

      Good luck!

  2. Farheen December 1, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    Heads up, there’s a typo under the explanation for engender. You accidentally, I believe, use the word ignite, instead of engender in the italicized sentence below the definition. Thanks for this post, though!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris December 3, 2012 at 11:51 am #

      Hi Farheen,

      Thanks for catching that!

  3. Revathy November 27, 2012 at 5:41 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I had started my GRE preps in september end and gave my GRE in october end; but i din’t get the scores as desired. So, i registered for my second trial this month end. I have been preparing word lists from “Manhattan’s Essential & Advanced word lists”, “MajorTests”; solving RC passages; taking Quants Tests from the past 2months now.

    I have also been taking kalpan’s, ETS’s, Manhattan’s Full Practice tests but I am still around the same range of scores. The recent test score which I took this morning was Math: 164; Verbal: 148. I have been in 305-312 range ever since.

    I have been trying to analyze my mistakes & correct them but I end up making new mistakes in the succeeding tests. I thought I needed to improve my vocabulary & started with Manhattan Word List; then I saw I needed improvement in Time management & I am doing that; I also noticed the way I am solving Math problems don’t actually match the way it is being solved in the answer explanations & I am working on that too; I noticed I am making silly mistakes of over-looking the words in the question & I am trying my best not to do that too.

    I am not really sure what or how else I should prepare for GRE; I would really appreciate some last minute tips/tricks and help in preparing for my GRE (in 2days from now).

    Thank you.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

      Hi Revathy,

      Improving is difficult :). But I think you are on the right path. It is true that new mistakes pop up in subsequent exams. But if you are taking away a few general pointers, such as read every word, then that can help.

      You may also want to look at a more specific level. For instance, is there a reason on RC that you tend to miss questions. Is it a closer reading? Or are you falling for common traps in the answer choices.

      For vocabulary, every word you learn can help you test day. But make sure you are learning the words in context, and not just reading the definition.

      With the math, if you are answering the questions correctly, do not worry that they do not match the explanations. Sometimes–indeed oftentimes–the explanations take a much more long-winded approach to the problem.

      Hope that helps, and good luck on the test :).

      • Revathy November 28, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

        Thank You for the tips Chris. 🙂

        It sure was helpful.! and I am concentrating on the specific reasons why I am making mistakes just like you said.

        Thank you for the Wishes too 🙂

        • Chris Lele
          Chris November 29, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

          You are welcome :).

  4. Prabhanjan November 23, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    I agree with you Chris that those word have very high frequency in-fact i had 2 of them on my GRE this time and by the way wanted to thank you for your help on RC really helped me and GREAT work Magoosh 🙂 ( HATS OFF !!! )

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 26, 2012 at 10:46 am #

      Thanks for the kind words!

      That’s interesting that you saw two of them! Perhaps. some out there have seen even three or more on a single test :).

  5. Shubham November 22, 2012 at 11:28 am #

    Hi Chris,
    Awesome collection of words!! Vocab Wednesdays helps me a lot.
    I love reading your blogs and i am always eagerly waiting for them,
    So keep posting…


    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 26, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      Thanks for the kudos!

  6. simon November 22, 2012 at 4:56 am #

    These words are fabulous. I have seen them more and more in the GRE materials. Thank you chris. However, I wish you made highlighted those words which are important for grad students between them.Anyway Good job dude like ever.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 26, 2012 at 10:48 am #

      Hi Simon,

      I’m not quite sure I understood what you meant by “…you made highlighted…”

      Any feedback is helpful, as I want to make sure these posts are as fabulous as can be :).

      • simon November 28, 2012 at 6:48 am #

        Dear chris

        According to your word:” Some are important words for a grad student to know; others are just easily confusable words ” . I meant it was good if you put a sign behind each of them that is important words for a grad student to know.I know some students that they check your blog for boosting their words for graduate school so that they can opt only those words that are vital for them.I apologize for my confusing words.Your manner is always fabulous. I am really proud of you.

        • Chris Lele
          Chris November 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

          Hi Simon,

          Oh, I see. Now I understand your question.

          I guess my point was that some words are words you’ll probably encounter in an academic context. Thus the GRE has them on the test. Others are simply confusable words, so GRE knows that it will be more likely to trap people.

          Words you should definitely know:

          Mitigate, engender, ambivalent.

          Hope that helps :).

          • som November 29, 2012 at 9:31 am #

            Yea. that’s it.And can I ask you your idea about book” verbal advantage” by Charles Harrington Elster? is it a good reference for GRE exam.It has mp3 so that in the way mostly I try to listen words for my exam.


            • Chris Lele
              Chris November 29, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

              Sure, that’s a good book as well. I think some of the words towards the end, i.e. the really hard words (level 9, 10, I think) probably won’t show up on the GRE. But otherwise, it’s a good source :).

              • simon December 1, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

                I deeply appreciate you.You are right. Level 9 and 10 is so hard.
                Best Wishes for Chris

  7. Bernjamin November 21, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks a lot!!! Really informative.

    One little muddle, what does sentence mean in the sentence ” Spending five minutes in the sentence will have a relatively benign effect on your skin; spending fifteen minutes, on the other hand, can already lead to burning and fine wrinkles. ” Interpreted as therapeutic?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 26, 2012 at 10:50 am #

      Oops! That is quite a flub on my part :).

      It should read “Spending five minutes in the SUN…”

      I can’t believe I gave the impression that reading my sentences can have a deleterious effects on one’s skin ;).

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