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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Words from The Atlantic

The Atlantic is a magazine featuring excellent writing on today’s most pressing topics. And, yes, when I say “excellent writing”, I mean lots of GRE words and complex syntax. But don’t let that scare you away; the writing jumps off the page in a way that the writing in the GRE passage simply doesn’t (“jump”, or for that matter anything suggesting movement and vitality, are inapt words to describe writing on the GRE passages).

The words below—and the one phrase—are mostly high-frequency words.

Litmus test

In science, a litmus test is used to determine the acidity or the alkalinity of a solution. As you might remember from science class, an acidic solution will turn a blue stripe red, whereas an alkaline solution will turn a red stripe blue. In figurative terms, which is what we care about on the GRE, a litmus test when something is determined to exhibit a certain quality.

Expressed less abstractly, imagine that you’ve never traveled alone and wonder whether you have what it takes to do so. You can take a weekend camping trip but that wouldn’t definitely answer the question. If you take a six-week backpacking trip through South East Asia that would be a litmus test on whether you are able to handle the rigors of traveling solo.


If you are 100% loyal to a cause, then you are staunch supporter. Whether you’ve voted republican or democrat in four straight elections (conservative vs. liberal for those non-Americans), odds are you are staunch member of one of the two parties.


Something that leaves no room for doubt can be described as unequivocal. If you get a perfect score on the GRE, it is unequivocal that you “own” the GRE. If you run 400 meters in less than fifty seconds, it is unequivocal that you are fast.

This word is often used to describe a person’s feelings or intentions—in other words, we’ve entered the realm of subjectivity. But when such feelings or intentions are 100% clear that nobody would disagree with them (we are now entering the realm of the objective), the word equivocal.

I wasn’t sure whether she disliked me, but after she didn’t even acknowledge me at line at the grocery store, pretending to text, her feelings towards me were unequivocal.


When Caesar returned to Rome after his success in the Gallic Wars, he was not making a typical homecoming; he was bent on conquest. The Roman Senate had forbade him to cross the Rubicon, a river to the north of Rome. At the river’s banks, Caesar stood with his army, pondering the decision he was about to make. If he did not cross the river with his army and returned to Rome unarmed, the current Roman government would remain intact. If he “crossed the Rubicon”, then he would have committed treason and would never be able to go back to the former state of affairs. He would have to fight till the death.

This decision is an irrevocable one: it cannot be undone. I think all of us have crossed some Rubicon in our lives. That is, we’ve made an irrevocable step, which can never be undone.


One who cannot be dissuaded in his or her goal is inexorable. This word is no mere instance of tenacity or not giving up. Invoking another historical instance, during the U.S. Civil War, once the North had gained control over the Confederacy, it’s victory almost assured, a general named William Tecumseh Sherman marched through the southern half of the country, burning everything in sight. Indeed, his men cut a 50-mile wide swathe of land all the way from Atlanta to the sea, in an inexorable march to the sea that left much of the South in flames, its many arsenals and supply routes in tatters.

Perhaps an even more heavy-handed version of “inexorable” is a tornado: nothing can stop a tornado from destroying everything in its path (well, maybe a pair of ruby slippers can).


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