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GRE Vocabulary: Build Your Vocabulary Arsenal

In a scene from Terminator 2, the main characters are about to engage in battle with a seemingly indomitable cyborg from the future. Before they undertake this daunting quest, they make a trip out to the desert. There, the good cyborg (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) has stashed a panoply of powerful firearms. In the end, this arsenal turns out to be the deciding factor against the evil cyborg.

As GRE test-takers, we, too, are about to have a showdown with a highly formidable foe. Likewise, when learning vocabulary, we need to arm ourselves with as many approaches as possible to stand a chance against the verbal section.

So, here is a list of our metaphorical firearms, our own veritable vocab arsenal.


How is reading for vocabulary, desultory at best — compared with the focused approach of a list of flashcards — so effective?

Imagine you have picked up the latest issue of Newsweek while waiting for your coffee.  You flip the pages to an article that interests you. There, in the opening paragraph, you see the word polemical. “Hey, wait a second”, you think. I’ve seen polemical. It means, it means…the definition escapes you. Based on the context, you think you know, but, to make sure, you run home to your flashcards (okay, I’m guessing you’re not going to be literally dashing through the door). In the deck, you find polemic. As soon as you see it, you remember the exact definition — a  controversial argument.

In the cozy flashcard milieu, words come to us a lot easier. But, the GRE is far from cozy. When we see a word we’ve seen before, the context — the GRE testing room — is very different. Likewise, when we are reading, we don’t expect to see a given word. It is this element of surprise, this jolt of recognition, that makes reading such an effective vocabulary-learning tool.

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For instance, say that same Newsweek article used parsimonious in the next paragraph. After a few seconds, the definition comes to you. You’ve experienced the jolt, and you’ve strengthened the neural connection you have with the word parsimonious. Now, you’ll associate parsimonious with the article.

The key to the whole process is that you are diligent in looking words up you aren’t entirely sure of, or, for that matter, words you don’t know at all (so don’t just gloss over parsimonious, unless you know exactly what it means). Of course, finding words you aren’t likely to know depends on what you read — NYTimes vs. Entertainment Weekly (though movie reviews always manage to sneak a few GRE words in there). Once you’ve looked a word up, commit it to a notebook or a flashcard. Even better, use it — the next weapon in our arsenal.


Once you’ve exposed yourself to many new words through reading, you don’t want to just look at them and put them in a notebook for safe-keeping. A technique you can rely on is active usage – a highly effective way of embedding words into long-term memory. If you don’t make active usage part of your arsenal, you are selling yourself short.

So then, what does it mean to actively use a word you’ve just learned? Pepper your speech with it? Describe a person walking by? Respond to something on TV? Maybe even slip it into your writing to affect a more erudite tone?

The answer is all of the above. And more. Using a word on the spot takes you away from the comfort of the flashcard environ, where you can easily flip the card over and have a pat answer. Active usage forces you to not only recall a word, but to apply it to a novel case in which the word is suitable.

For instance, I know I’ve learned a new word when it suddenly pops out of the blue to describe something around me. In a similar vein, students who smile when they are running late and say, sorry for being dilatory, show that they are learning the vocabulary (dilatory, by the way, means tardy).

Better yet, if you know somebody else prepping for the GRE, quiz each other back and forth with words that suddenly pop into your head. Or, if you refer to a mutual friend who has been down of late, you say they’re morose (or even better, saturnine).

The key to active usage is to be creative. So, if vocabulary words start randomly popping into your head, think of where you can use them. Indeed, the zanier the connections you make with words, the more likely you are to remember them (this zanier-is-better approach applies to the next part of the vocabulary arsenal as well).


Suppose there is a really pesky word that you just can’t get into your long-term memory, no matter how many times you see that word. Okay, perhaps you don’t have to suppose, as there are many words that fall into this category. But let’s pluck a word at random from the GRE vocabulary tree: lambaste.

Let’s say whenever you encounter this word, the first four letters, l-a-m-b, throw you off. You picture a docile creature bah-ing contentedly in a pen. When you see the definition — to reprimand harshly — it always surprises you.

Instead of trying to snuff out the image of a lamb, however, you should try using it to your advantage.

Imagine a boss, or anybody who has exerted some power over you in the past (a middle school gym teacher works perfectly). He or she calls you into their office (or lair) and is now berating you for something you did incorrectly. Now, I want you to imagine a large lamb’s head in place of this person’s head.

Or, if that doesn’t quite do the trick, imagine you are cooking. You’re not very adept in the kitchen, but you want to surprise your significant other with his/her favorite dish. Well, in the end, you end up ruining the lamb. Your significant other arrives and, witnessing your culinary debacle, gives you a good going over, “you don’t baste a lamb, you roast one.”

The process of coming up with a creative—and often offbeat—way of remembering a word is called a mnemonic. Above are two mnemonics that I thought of on the spot. What I’ve learned from coming up with mnemonics in front of a class is that the best mnemonics are our own mnemonics. Sure, a few students like my mnemonics, but others devise their own wacky ones up (or lean back slightly, looking at me as though I’ve gone a little mental).

As silly as my mnemonics may sound, the main takeaway is that a good mnemonic is the one that works for you. And by good, I mean it is memorable. Case in point, you may have already forgotten my lambaste mnemonics, because you didn’t think of them yourself. But, if you are struggling with a word, a clever mnemonic will not only make the word easier to learn but will also — hopefully — make the word more fun to learn.

As for lambaste, maybe you have already come up with one of your own. Indeed, if you can concoct a colorful one, let me know. Either way, by devising your own mnemonic for mnemonic you’ll be even less likely to forget the definition. And that wouldn’t be a bah-d thing. Okay, sorry for the corny joke. Just don’t lambaste me!


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