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GRE Vocabulary: Around the Globe in Five Words

English is truly the global mutt of languages. Indeed, centuries of colonization and commerce has had the curious effect of both making English the global language and swelling the pages of English dictionaries with such loanwords as sauna and safari.

(Sauna comes by way of Finland; safari comes via African-rooted Arabic and, somewhat inexplicably, means ‘coast’).

While many words are derived from traded goods, a few have percolated up to the upper echelons of English – meaning you may well encounter them on the GRE.



In India, a person who was not allowed to be part of a religious procession was deemed a pariah.  Today, pariah has a more general meaning and describes anybody who is an outcast.

The once eminent scientist, upon being inculpated for fudging his data, has become a pariah in the research community.



Nope, kowtow is not a giant truck for pulling bovines, but a word that comes from the imperial courts of China. When a person kowtowed to the emperor, or any eminent mandarin for that matter, he or she knelt and touched the ground with his or her forehead. Such a gesture was intended to show respect and submission.

Today, kowtow has a negative tinge and implies that a person is acting in a subservient or sycophantic manner.

He kowtowed to his boss on even the most trivial matters that the boss herself soon became nauseated by his sycophancy. 



No, it’s not kowtow’s cousin – in fact, this word sprung from American soil, namely the Algonquin tribe of North America. A powwow was quite a hootenanny of a time and involved a big party of dancing and dining between tribes.

Strangely, today’s meaning is a lot more subdued, and far less fun. Any informal discussion or colloquy is regarded as a powwow. You and your co-worked can have a mid-afternoon powwow over coffee. A political leader can have a powwow with his cronies (I’m presuming they’d favor cigars over coffee).



Junta means to join and comes via Portugal and Spain. But this joining was in no way peaceful. Whenever a military group joined forces to usurp the existing regime, they would form a military junta. Today, junta can refer to the aggressive takeover by a group.



It may sound like an exotic vegetable or a pungent pasta dish, but it’s neither. Imbroglio comes to us via mid-18th century Italian and has nothing to do with the kitchen. Instead it is related to the verb ‘embroil’ and describes a confusing, and potentially embarrassing, situation.

That’s not saying you can’t have an imbroglio in the kitchen:

The chef cook-off featured one gourmand who had the unfortunate distinction of mixing the wrong broths, creating off-putting dishes on an imbroglio that viewers will not soon forget.



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4 Responses to GRE Vocabulary: Around the Globe in Five Words

  1. sai April 21, 2012 at 4:06 am #

    Hi Chris,
    can you suggest me any author’s novels or the novels which you have read and finded that dense gre words?

  2. Preethi April 20, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I read the first line and got stuck. What’s the contextual meaning of the word ‘mutt’ here? I checked out the meaning it says mongrel.

    Cheers 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 20, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

      Hi Preethi,

      ‘Mutt’ is a random mixture of things (though it originally refers to a dog that is combination of different–and sometimes unidentifiable–breeds. While pejorative, the word here is employed for humorous effect, implying that English has become quite a chaotic jumble of different tongues.

      Hope that helps :).

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