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Vocabulary in Context: The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker

Over the last few months, I’ve declaimed on many occasions that the act of studying only from a deck of flashcards has limited efficacy. Instead, The Revised GRE requires us to have a far greater sense of how words function in context, and so one can’t simply stop with flashcards. Our free GRE flashcards do a great job of providing context, but that’s still not enough.

I recommend learning vocabulary by reading voraciously from certain sources. These sources include The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker. Most of the writing in these august publications is not only replete with GRE-level vocabulary but is also similar in tone and style to the writing on the Revised GRE.

In this post, I examine actual articles from the aforementioned sources. I highlight important vocabulary and discuss how to approach learning words when you encounter them in context.

The articles come from a variety of fields, including business, science, and literature. I’ve done my best to select pieces that I think a majority will find interesting, which I recommend you do as well when you embark on your reading quest.

Each article excerpt not only contains GRE words (though these are sprinkled throughout each article) but also analyzes an issue.

(If you’re more interested in books than articles, head over to GRE Vocabulary Books: Recommended Fiction and Non-Fiction.)

Let’s start with an article from the business section of The Atlantic Monthly.

The Atlantic Monthly

Outsider, non-founder CEOs are often overvalued because many corporate boards think the answer to their problems is a superstar CEO with an outsized reputation. This leads them to overpay for people who are good at creating outsized reputations through networking, interviewing, and taking credit for other peoples’ achievements—all bad indicators of future success.

Rakesh Khurana has amply shown how this delusion of the charismatic savior creates a dysfunctional market for CEOs, allowing the small number of existing public-company CEOs to demand and receive extravagant compensation. The myth of the generalist CEO is bolstered by the many fawning media portrayals where CEOs say that their key jobs are understanding, hiring, and motivating people—leading board members to believe that you can run a technology company without knowing anything about technology.

This passage is great because it is full of relatively difficult words, many of which are high-frequency GRE vocabulary (fawning, bolstered, ample/amply). This excerpt is also filled with analysis, which will help sync your synapses for the Revised GRE.

The article also scores big points in the Topics of Interest category. After all, it’s Steve Jobs — revere him or fear him, most of us have an opinion of the company and its ubiquitous products.

Perhaps you find business “blah,” or maybe you like to vary your reading. A great field to draw from is science. Part of the reason is that the Revised GRE usually has one science passage. While it may be drier than the typical fare found in the magazines cited above, the science writing on the GRE is often similar in tone and style to what you’ll encounter in these magazines.

So let’s take the article Bird Brain, which appeared in the New Yorker last year. It explores the development of language in human beings and whether language is the province only of humans. To do so, it tells the story of an African gray parrot, Alex, and his owner, Irene Pepperberg. Irene trained Alex to say hundreds of words (though none, I believe, were GRE vocab) so that Alex, by the time he was an adult, was able to form relatively coherent sentences.

Below is an excerpt from the article, which is about 15 pages long. I recommend reading the entire piece, especially if the premise intrigues you. The excerpt includes a few vocab words and some reflection and analysis.

The New Yorker

All children grow up in a world of talking animals. If they don’t come to know them through fairy tales, Disney movies, or the Narnia books, they discover them some other way. A child will grant the gift of speech to the family dog, or to the stray cat that shows up at the door. At first, it’s a solipsistic fantasy—the secret sharer you can tell your troubles to, or that only you understand. Later, it’s rooted in a more philosophical curiosity, the longing to experience the ineffable interiority of some very different being. My eight-year-old daughter says that she wishes the horses she rides could talk, just so she could ask them what it feels like to be a horse. Such a desire presumes—as Thomas Nagel put it in his 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”—that animals have some kind of subjectivity, and that it might somehow be plumbed. In any case, Nagel explained, humans are “restricted to the resources” of our own minds, and since “those resources are inadequate to the task,” we cannot really imagine what it is like to be a bat, only, at best, what it is like to behave like one—to fly around in the dark, gobble up insects, and so on. That inability, however, should not lead us to dismiss the idea that animals “have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own.” We simply can’t know. Yet many of us would be glad for even a few glimpses inside an animal’s mind. And some people, like Irene Pepperberg, have dedicated their lives to documenting those glimpses.

Though you may already know a few of these words, you should definitely look them up, especially if you are inferring the meaning based on the context. Always validate your hunch — don’t assume you can always glean the exact definition of the word simply by looking at context.

After looking up these words, you’ll notice that one has a secondary meaning, — plumbed — and that a couple come from philosophy — subjectivity and solipsistic. After consulting Word Smart, Barron’s Words You Need to Know, or other vocabulary lists I’ve recommend, you’ll notice that subjectivity (or subjective) is a very important word. Solipsistic, on the other hand, is not as likely to pop up on the test. But if you already have a strong vocabulary and are looking to score in the top 10%, then definitely learn solipsistic.

You will notice that the definition of interiority isn’t very surprising, as it is directly related to interior. You may also notice that it is similar to subjective. Finally, you learn the word ineffable, which you’ll find on a few vocab lists. Write it down on a flashcard along with an example sentence (“Oh, the irony of ineffable — to say that something is ineffable is to undermine the essence of the word”).

Following a process similar to the one above is important. Don’t simply underline the words and look them up. You need to digest them, so that, much like Alex the parrot, you will be able to use them in a coherent sentence.

Of course, reading the entire article is also a good idea. Essentially you are training your brain to read through a long, relatively challenging piece, a skill that is indispensable for the much-longer Revised GRE.

Let’s say that you read Bird Brain and enjoy it. You are already familiar with a number of words and want something more challenging, maybe something couched in academic jargon or that oozes literary style. (I’m assuming that if you fall into this category, you are also looking to get the difficult verbal section.)

A good resource is The New York Times Book Review. Here you will find the erudite waxing literary on a recently published book that is just as scholarly (Are these the very writers who craft byzantine Text Completions for ETS?).

Below are two excerpts from a review of a biography of Joseph Heller, the reclusive and frequently irascible author of Catch-22, one of the great novels of the 20th century.

New York Times Book Review

But again, Daugherty is often perceptive about Heller’s place in the larger culture, even if the novelist himself rarely comes into focus. For the human aspect, one turns to Erica Heller’s frank but loving memoir of her father, “Yossarian Slept Here,” which comes as close as possible, I dare say, to deciphering the enigma behind the obsessive, pitch-black fiction. Joseph Heller, the opposite of demonstrative, was given to oblique ways of showing affection….

That was the year Heller published his second novel, “Something Happened,” which Daugherty commends as follows: “Joe stepped beyond Wilson’s sentimentality and Yates’s bitterness to eviscerate modern America’s success ethic.” Such a pat comparison to Sloan Wilson, the author of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” and Richard Yates, the author of “Revolutionary Road,” is the sort of thing Daugherty might have emended given a bit more time to think about it; at any rate, “Something Happened” is perhaps the one work of postwar American fiction that makes Yates seem positively Panglossian. Erica Heller, for her part, describes the novel (probably her father’s best) as “569 pages of hilarious but mordant, caustically wrapped, smoldering rage” — though of course it’s personal in her case. Primary among the targets of the protagonist Bob Slocum’s paranoid, solipsistic rant is his family….

This article is clearly the most challenging among those printed here. There are many difficult words, some that may give even the most literate among us pause (“Panglossian” is derived from a character in Voltaire’s Candide, Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss is always optimistic, regardless of the circumstances).

Interestingly, solipsistic makes another appearance. Maybe it’s not such an arcane word after all. Higher-frequency GRE words include mordant, caustic, emend, enigma, and oblique.

Also, you want to be careful not to rely too much on assumptions. Demonstrative does not simply mean ‘to demonstrate’ (it means ‘tending to expressive one’s emotions openly’). And pat — such a diminutive word, so folksy-sounding and innocuous — has many meanings. The adjectival form employed in the book review could easily pop up on the GRE and cause you to answer a text completion incorrectly. So be sure to look up such words (if an explanation is “pat” it is superficial, cursory, and unconvincing).

Surprisingly, difficult vocabulary words and highfalutin prose aren’t only found in the esoteric niche of the book review. Take an opinion piece we are far more likely to read: the movie review.

The New York Times

At a certain point, though — to say exactly when would ruin a fairly stunning surprise — the cat-and-mouse psychology is jettisoned in favor of something more procedural. The two halves of “Love Crime” divide according to the words of the title: the first explores the knotty, feverish, ambiguous bond between Christine and Isabelle, while the second is all about guilt, innocence, evidence and motive. It is interesting and ingenious, even if some of the kinky, queasy fascination that had been so intoxicating in the earlier scenes ebbs away.

While the words here aren’t as recondite as Panglossian, the prose style is relatively challenging and has echoes of the GRE Text Completion.


How do I know which articles I should read?

For tips on where to start, read my post on Reading Vocabulary in Context: Where Should I Start?

By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.