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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Common but Unknown Words

People often ask where I come up with these words. Do I tap into some magical conduit of GRE words that are actually on the test (if only!)? Do I drop a Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and see what page it lands on (my downstairs neighbors probably wouldn’t appreciate this)? Or do I have some savant-like ability to predict which words will be on the test?

The answer is far more prosaic than the questions above would imply. Basically, I crack open GRE books that ETS has written, including the College Board for the SAT, to get a sense of what words ETS likes to use. Since I’ve been teaching the GRE for awhile, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of which words are common; I’ve also—at least I tell myself so—developed a sense of what words are used in an academic context and/or are used relatively frequently but aren’t that easy to define. Finally, I look at GRE word lists to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

All that said, there are sometimes words that don’t really fall into any of those categories—words that I feel could have a fair chance of showing up on the GRE. Don’t worry—I won’t choose obscure words like haecceity, sophrosyne or quidnunc.

One way I have of determining whether a word is obscure is to enter it into the search box. Doing so allows me to see how often the word has come up in the New York Times over the last 100+ years. A “common” word should show up at least five times a year.

The words below are all relatively common words, according to the New York Times. Yet, they are words that don’t typically come up on GRE word lists or GRE tests that I’ve perused. At the same time, they are words whose definitions may elude you.



I know—phonetically it sounds like something malicious you’d say to someone you just duped. Succor actually means aid or assistance, especially during trying times. For instance, the one time that I ran a marathon my mom was at the halfway point to provide me with liquid succor in the form of a Gatorade bottle.

The hurricane was so devastating that much of the population did not receive succor—food, assistance, shelter—for nearly a week after the storm had hit.


Imagine a judge, stern-faced and black robed, presiding over a court. He or she probably isn’t going to crack a joke anytime soon. The judge’s manner and bearing are gravitas personified. In other words, gravitas is used to describe a serious, dignified manner.

The incumbent vice president was known for his gravitas, rarely smiling in public and always holding his head high.



Something that is accepted or reputed to be the case—though it may not actually be true—captures the essence of putative. Though I’m the titular head of household, my wife is the putative head of household. Meaning anyone who comes over knows that my wife takes care of most of the household stuff, a role that includes delegating stuff to husband. Other contexts include, a government in which the president is supposed to lead the country, though the putative leaders—the one’s who truly control the country—are usually part of the president’s inner circle.



After an unrelenting rainstorm, the streets will be strewn with debris: tree branches, litter spewed out by overflowing drains, yesterday’s newspapers. This scattered material is collectively known as detritus. Of course, we don’t need some violent event to spawn detritus. Just looking at my desk, I can see the detritus of wasabi nuts and almonds that I’ve been nibbling on over this week (hmm…I should probably clean that up).



Bereft can be a confusing word. It is either the past tense of the verb bereave or an adjective meaning deprived of something. Bereave—we are talking about the verb now—means to deprive someone of a loved person. In other words, when somebody loses a loved one he or she is in a period of bereavement. This definition isn’t all too different from the adjective bereft—though the context is very different:

Massive oil spills have left the surrounding water bereft of any aquatic life.

After the economic downturn, the city center was bereft of the dynamism that had once made it such a coveted place to live.


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