Words that are derived from ancient Greek and Roman mythology are so numerous that they almost go unnoticed. Indeed, they are inside a Trojan Horse that has been slipped into the confines of the English lexicon. Quite a few of these stowaways are GRE vocab words.
Tantalus was a figure condemned to the underworld for an unspeakable act. Indeed, he was placed in Tartarus, the deepest part of Hades. His punishment was simple: for eternity Tantalus had to stand waist-high in water, a fruit tree directly above him.
While this setup may not sound like the worst punishment, whenever Tantalus reached out to grab the fruit on the tree, the branches would recede beyond his grip; whenever he would stoop to drink water, the water would sink below his thirsty mouth.
Tantalus of course never gets the fruit, but we do get a great word: tantalize, which means to tempt someone with something very desirable that remains just beyond their grasp.
If you thought the fruit setup was bad, imagine pushing a massive boulder up a steep embankment only to watch it tumble back down the slope. As soon as it does so, you have to run back down the hill, and instantly begin pushing the boulder back up the hill. (At least Tantalus didn’t have to do any physical labor). Sisyphus, on the other hand, must spend eternity pushing–and running after–his boulder.
Today, we have Sisyphean, a word usually used together with ‘task.’ A Sisyphean task is one that requires a prodigious amount of effort. The word is very similar to Herculean, which, as you can probably tell, also comes from mythology, via Hercules.
Narcissus was a beautiful lad so taken with his reflection in the water that he fell into the pool and drowned (too bad they didn’t have a mirror in those days). Today, a narcissistic person is one who is totally and utterly in love with him- or herself. If the whole narcissism thing gets really bad, i.e., you buy a T-shirt with your face on it, you start a cult, in which you are the leader, etc., then you even get your own clinical diagnosis: Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Mars was the Greek god of war. No cruel afterlife fate for him. The word ‘Mar’tial simply means relating to war. You’ve probably even hard the word used before: martial arts are the fighting arts.
Taking the phrase “ignorance is bliss” to a whole other level, the Greeks had a special river in Hades (or the underworld) called the Lethe. If you took a sip from the Lethe, you would instantly forget everything, including all your woes. The Lethe-ians—that’s my word–were a very lazy, dopey sort. While nothing made them sad, nothing made them happy. They would just kind of lounge about like mythological manatees.
To be ‘leth’argic doesn’t mean to imbibe from the Lethe. To be lethargic is to be slow and sluggish.