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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Common Courtesies

In life, we’ve all encountered a person who is unfailingly polite, always saying the right thing at the right time. We’ve also met that person’s opposite: someone who is cantankerous or simply goes out of his or her way to flout common courtesy.

So whether you are polished and tactful, or rude and ill-mannered, there are a few GRE words to describe you.



Have you ever tried to be nice to somebody but he or she finds a way to be nasty and rude? Yes, that is a rhetorical question. DMV employees, the cashier who is just having a bad day, or, if you are on the other side of the service divide, a customer who tells you to hurry up are all behaving churlishly. You want nothing more to be out of that person’s way as soon as possible.  Churl is the noun form of this word, and you can say that so-and-so is a churl.

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Sometimes a person acts in a way that is not in accordance with expected conduct. Cutting in line is one of these improprieties. A person who commits this egregious infraction isn’t necessarily churlish—that is they aren’t trying to be rude—often they are just oblivious.

Impropriety—or improper conduct—applies to the road as well. Not allowing a driver who is indicating to enter your lane is an impropriety. It is expected that we allow someone to move into our lane, especially if they are try to exit a road or freeway.



If you are the object of contumely, somebody is either saying vicious, nasty things to you or treating you rudely. If someone fails to hold a door open for you even though they clearly see you, that person is clearly in breach of propriety. If that person intentionally slams the door in your face then they are treating you with contumely.

Contumely is not too common of a GRE word, as are some related words such as insolence and impertinence.



Poised in a bespoke suit, dry martini in hand, James Bond used to pop to mind whenever I thought of the word debonair. Now that cool, stylish elegance—which is the definition of debonair—is something I associate with the actor George Clooney, who, even when he is disheveled, radiates a charm that makes most other men look like utter schmucks. So next time a man is unfailingly polite, while being charming, just think debonair (or George Clooney).




Don’t be misled into thinking that this word has anything to do with decorating. If you are decorous you are conforming to what is expected socially (you basically don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to yourself). Take a social activity such as dancing. To dance decorously with your partner would be to keep your hands in one place and execute a dance that is at least 50 years old. Tango anyone? For indecorous dancing just turn on MTV.




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