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.