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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Vocab”U”lary Wednesday

Every now and then I’ll thread in a letter-themed Vocab Wednesday. “U” guessed! This week will feature the letter “u”. This is by no means an exhaustive list of “u” words. Other “u” words, such as umbrage, undermine, and upbraid have already made it into previous Vocab Wednesdays, so I wanted to make sure I provide a fresh infusion of words. Of course all the words below can pop up on the GRE.


To forcefully seize power is to usurp it. This word is typically seen in the context of revolutions—or any period in which political there is political unrest. Throughout the Middle Ages there were many usurpers—or at least attempted usurpations—of the British throne (Richard III jumps out as one of the most opprobrious). More generally usurp can mean to displace, though the focus on power and rulers is still there:

The guild system ultimately usurped serfdom as the predominant economic mode in much of Europe.


One way to sell something that nobody wants is to walk up to a prospective buyer, put your arm around him or her, and try to become that person’s instant best friend: “Hey buddy, I can totally make your life awesome—imagine all eyes are on you as you drive out of this parking lot in that Honda” (pan to 90’s era Civic). The hypothetical used car salesman is being unctuous, that is he is being insincere and oily, full of flattery empty of fact.

So next time anyone tries to become your best friend and compliment you on traits you don’t even possess, just think: How unctuous!


This does not refer to an apartment building in which the only tenants are rodents. It comes from the Latin for “unable to be held against attack”. But we are not talking battlefield attack, but rhetorical attack: an untenable view or position is one that cannot be defended against objections or sustained scrutiny. In other words, if something is untenable it is indefensible.

In light of what science has revealed about the addictive properties of cigarette smoking, the claim that smoking is simply an act of free-will has become untenable.


Not as common as the other words on the list, undergird means to provide support for. For instance, a theory should be undergirded by rigorous scientific testing. To undergird can also mean to provide someone with moral support.


About 20 years ago, I remember walking into a new establishment that had just opened near my childhood home. The décor was utilitarian, almost Spartan: green flecked an otherwise undifferentiated grey. And the smell of coffee was acrid in the air. I didn’t drink coffee at the time, so this establishment turned me off—the creepy looking mermaid insignia, which emanated a cult-like vibe, didn’t help.

Well, 3,000 cups of coffee later, I can say that at one point Starbucks had not only become a fixture in my life, but that it had become seemingly ubiquitous—that is, everywhere I looked there was that green mermaid, undiminished, after all of these years, in terms of creepiness. So ubiquitous is the quality of being everywhere. SUVs, hip-hop, smartphones, are all part of the club of things that have become ubiquitous in the last 20 years.


There is Versailles, a sprawling oasis of opulence, where ornate gardens gild even more ornate architecture. Then there is the apartment building across the street—six floors of homogenous glass and metal, with one function: provide a structure for people to live in. Anything that is about the practical and functional, and not at all the aesthetic, is said to be utilitarian. Things that, by nature, are utilitarian include my office chair, my office desk, and well just about anything that you’ll find in an office.

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