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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Mistaken Notions

Is something awry, amiss, or off? Is your perception, belief, or opinion misinformed? Well, hopefully these words will disabuse you (“disabuse” means to show someone that his or her belief is mistaken).


“To be or not to be,” said Macbeth. “That is the question?”

… Actually, the question is: from where did you get that information? After all, it was Hamlet who uttered these immortal words.

To attribute words to somebody who never said those words in the first place is an example of misattribution. Also, slightly fudging what somebody said is a misattribution. The character Sam in Casablanca, played by Humphrey Bogart, never said, “Play it again, Sam.” Instead, he only said, “Play it Sam.”


Fallacies, fallacious, and infallible are all similar words, riffing off the root “fall-“, which means “deceive.” Originally, the word had to do with those who would misuse logic in order to deceive. Indeed, we have something called logical fallacies, which are errors in reasoning that a person will use—either intentionally or unintentionally—while debating with another person.

Fallible has taken a broader meaning: capable of making mistakes. All humans are fallible on some level, but there are those who excel in some area who seem infallible, or incapable of making mistakes.


In the 3rd grade, I was somewhat maladroit and managed on a few occasions to pierce my skin with a lead pencil. At the time, lead poisoning was a bugaboo and so I was familiar with the dangers it posed. For at least a year, I waited for my motor skills to slow down and my test scores to drop. It was only in the 4th grade that I learned that pencils actually contained harmless graphite. That people call graphite lead is a misnomer, or the improper way of describing something. I guess you can say I was misled.

Interestingly, chalk isn’t chalk anymore; it’s gypsum. I know: I too feel gypped.


As soon as we find out that a piece of artwork is a forgery, what once charmed us with its beauty now turns to be unappealing. Anything that has a surface beauty, but upon closer inspection turns out to be not so appealing, is called specious. Logic, or at least rhetoric that comes across as logically sound on the surface but is actually riddled with fallacies, could also be called specious.

So the idea that all artwork determined to be a forgery is automatically unappealing and specious is itself specious: perhaps our belief that we are beholding a work of a true master makes the painting more beautiful.


To intentionally confuse or mislead is to obfuscate. Let’s say that I tell you that the definition of obfuscate means to willfully confound through the sometimes artful—though often downright perverse—rhetoric, I am obfuscating. Rather, I could just say that to obfuscate means to intentionally make confusing or intelligible.


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