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Obscure Vocabulary for the GRE?

At one point, actually only a mere two years ago, the GRE tested obscure vocabulary. The test was different back then (the revised GRE became the standard in Aug. 2011) and had two very vocab-heavy question types: Analogies and Antonyms.

Back then knowing the word was often enough to net students a point. As a result, students crammed thousands upon thousands of words. One recourse the GRE test writers had was to use increasingly obscure words, so a majority of students wouldn’t end up answering a difficult question correctly.  Thus, words like etiolate, foudroyant, and nimiety would show up in antonym questions—words so obscure that not even bombastic academicians use. Indeed, the word etiolate has only been used once in the 160-plus year history of The New York Times, and that entry was to underscore the rarity of the word.

All this may be interesting as a tidbit of test prep arcanum—though you’d be forgiven for thinking the question moot, now that the test has changed. But the question of obscure vocabulary is relevant for two reasons. First off, many students will persist in studying 5,000-word GRE vocabulary lists, many which have “etiolates” floating around in them.

Secondly, and perhaps more subtly, focusing on cramming difficult words overlooks the emphasis of the Revised GRE: to test your ability to handle words in context. So instead of being able to robotically cough up the definition to etiolate (it means to make weak and feeble, by the way), you should be able to understand how words like contrive, construe, and render—words I’m sure we’ve all heard before—function in complex, academic-level writing.

Finally, there was one more important issue regarding obscure vocabulary: How obscure is obscure?  You may think that all the words on the GRE obscure—meaning you probably don’t hear them in polite conversation. How do you know if a given word is too obscure for the GRE?

This is not an easy question to answer. I could say words on the Revised GRE tend to be words most writers know and use. But that elicits the follow-up question: Which writers? Even if I refine my definition by saying academic writers, there are probably a few words on the GRE that an academic does not know, and plenty of words that an academic writer knows, that probably wouldn’t show up on the GRE.

One good test I’ve devised is  “The New York Times test”. Enter a word into the search box of The New York Times. If it has shown up at least several times each year for the last few years, it probably is not an obscure word. It is a difficult word, since most GRE words show up dozens of time each year, but a word that is fair game. For instance, one of the more difficult words in the GRE Official Guide, sartorial, shows up in The New York Times, twelve times in the month of July, alone. Even scary-looking words, such as panegyric, has shown up in The New York Times five times this year. Have a look at that search result here.

The takeaway from all this, besides avoiding word lists for the old GRE, is, if you are learning words by reading them in context, look up a word in the New York Times to check its level of obscurity. If it shows up once every ten years, it is most likely too obscure for the GRE. If it show up a few times a month, then it is indeed a commonly used vocabulary word, one that you should know for test day.


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8 Responses to Obscure Vocabulary for the GRE?

  1. sourav September 12, 2013 at 2:46 am #

    Hi Chris,

    How’s this website for good reading and by ‘good reading’ I mean to say GRE Specific and good for its RC practice.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 12, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

      Hi Sourav, has been a mixed bag in terms of GRE-level reading. Often, a story is made dramatic and engaging–much like you’d see on T.V–but the piece is never that academic or deep. I’d say check out the site from time to time to see if an article is full of GRE-level prose.

  2. Amit September 9, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Hi Chris, Its a more rational way of learning words, a lot of us (students) focus more on mugging up as many words as we can without really understanding them in the context they are used. I think this idea mainly comes from the burgeoning test prep centers which provide an endless list of words with no definitions. I read your previous blog about, its a great website for a novice with plenty of supporting material.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 10, 2013 at 10:50 am #

      Hi Amit,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts :). I totally agree–students are trapped in this thinking that by studying endless word lists–with words chosen at random–they are going to be successful. This couldn’t be further from the truth :)., reading in the and building your vocabulary with strong connections for each word will help you much better than cramming words that you never really understand in the first place.

      Good luck!

  3. ranganathan223 September 9, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    That’s a good article regarding NYT ! The search box tab is very productive. Now there’s one more step towards learning esoteric words, since the NYT is the Holy Grail of obscure words ! Also i just found this article in NYT. Thought this will be relevant to the above post of Your’s – ” New York Times 50 Most Challenging Words (defined and used) ” -> The link is .

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

      Great link! I’ll be writing a blog post about it soon. Thanks for the rec. :).

  4. sourav September 9, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    A big thanks from the core of my heart. I guess NYT can definitely confine the domain now. Thanks chris.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

      You are welcome!

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