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Vocab Thursday: In a Pickle?

A day late this week! 🙂 Which puts us in a bit of pickle, so it’s called “Vocab Thursday”, just for today. A pickle is another way of saying an unpleasant and potentially embarrassing situation. We’ve all been in a pickle or a jam (though nobody has probably ever been in a jar of pickle jam). Just think back to time when you were in a messy situation. But a messy situation is a vague way of describing things. Below are more descriptive GRE words to describe those messy situations.



Those who first encounter this word during the GRE are certainly in a predicament. See, our brains want to fall back on the not-very-reliable roots approach, roots which supposedly underpin English. We think ‘pre’ means before, ‘dic’ means to say and therefore predicament means saying something before.

Besides not really making sense as a word, this definition—and the intuitive leap that got you there—is flat out wrong. A predicament is a tough spot or position. For instance, if you are rushing to apply to grad school but no more testing appointments are available, you are in a true predicament, and will have to wait the following year to apply.



A funny-looking word that appears scrambled, imbroglio comes to us, with very little alteration, from Italian.  It means a confusion or tangle, as when you get tangled up in a situation and end up getting embarrassed.

One of the most infamous imbroglios that leap to mind is Nixon’s Watergate scandal back in 1972. Of course one doesn’t need to go back that far for U.S. presidents imbroglios. Currently, Barack Obama is enmeshed in an IRS scandal in which IRS targeted conservative groups, basically bilking those groups out of money.



A fracas is not a simple imbroglio; somebody usually gets hurt. Punches may be thrown—somebody may even lose an eye. I remember a peculiar fracas that took place about seven years in South Korea, where I was teaching. Apparently, in a government meeting one government member attacked another member by taking off his shoe and swinging wildly. Luckily, nobody was seriously maimed.



Imbroglios and predicaments are by no means pleasant – but they are better than utter failure. In a debacle, the failure is so resounding—the embarrassment so mortifying—that everybody involved is a loser. Famous debacles in military history include the Bay of Pigs, in which Kennedy sent paramilitary forces, by boat, to invade Cuba (they didn’t get very far before being captured and return to the U.S.), and Hitler’s attempt to invade Stalingrad in the dead of the winter.



This is by no means a common GRE word—but I thought I’d include it anyway. It comes from fencing—you know the sport with the “needle-y” sword. If you make a blunder and have an unfortunate accident, you have a contretemps. In the modern usage of contretemps, nobody loses an eye; a contretemps is simply something inopportune that pops up and derails the usual course of things. Contretemps are common during election time; a stumping president only has to say something slightly off kilter and the media will quickly jump on it, turning into a contretemps.


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