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GRE Vocab Wednesday – Not so Surprising Secondary Definitions

Usually I focus on words that have surprising second definitions—definitions you would never be able to guess based on the original definition. Today, I’ve chosen words that have a second definition that is loosely related to the original definition.



You might be thinking truffles, cremini, and chanterelle—and you’re not too far off. All mushrooms grow, and some rapidly. Another definition of mushroom is verb meaning just that: to grow or spread suddenly and rapidly.

Interest in genealogy mushroomed during the early days of the Internet, as users relied on a wealth of data to be able to determine their origins; however, once social media took over, people’s interest generally shifted from the past to the present.



You wouldn’t think balloon would pop up as one of the answer choices on the GRE, but that’s just what happened in the first paper-based test released for the new GRE. On one of the Text Completions balloon is indeed the correct answer. Balloon means to dramatically increase or spike. Like mushroom the word has a slightly negative ring to it, meaning that something bad is becoming worse.



Believe it or not, there is yet another common word that has a second definition meaning to increase, usually uncontrollably. That word is snowball. Even more than mushroom and balloon, it is used in a negative sense and connotes a rapid increase. One’s debt, one’s anxiety, and one’s notoriety can all snowball; they can quickly—and uncontrollably—increase (think of a snowball rolling down a hill).



Okay, no more words about growing rapidly. The next word is familiar to many children, because it is featured in one of the first songs they ever learn: Mary Had a Little Lamb. But this fleece is not as white (or pure) as snow. Fleece means to deceive, usually by overcharging someone for services rendered. Okay, I admit it: fleece did not fit this week’s category because it is definitely surprising. But I promise, I was not trying to fleece you!



Comb can also be used as a verb that means to look for or scour. If you drop something in the dark, you would get on your hands and knees and comb the ground for it (think of your fingers as the “teeth” of a comb).

The police force combed the area for the escaped convict, eventually finding him in a shallow ravine, with mud caked over his face for camouflage.



A signal tells you what to do. It is something important—something that you should pay attention to. The second definition of signal, which is an adjective, grabs your attention: signal means notable or striking. A signal accomplishment is one that everyone remembers (a perfect GRE score on your application would definitely be a signal accomplishment). Signal can also modify something egregious:

The mayor, for four years running, was unable to cut spending, a signal failure that led to his removal from office. 


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2 Responses to GRE Vocab Wednesday – Not so Surprising Secondary Definitions

  1. Kaylene October 15, 2013 at 7:01 am #

    I always thought that fleece kind of made sense…I think about pulling the wool over someone’s eyes.

    Thanks for the list!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 15, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

      Great mnemonic! Pulling the “wool over someone’s eyes” 🙂

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