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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Confusing Compound Words

When two words are brought together, they form compound words. Many compound words that we’ve learned are straightforward enough. A playground, for instance, is the ground on which children play. But not all compound words are that easy to figure out. Below are a few tough ones that may just show up test day.



In geographical terms, a watershed describes the area where two parts of land are broken up by a river. The GRE cares little for such earth science niceties. The figurative definition—and the one you need to know—is any major turning point in an event.

It was only when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus that a fuse was lit to turn the Civil Rights Movement into a nationwide, unified protest for equal rights for African Americans; for this watershed event, Rosa Parks has been honored with the august title “the first lady of the civil rights.” 



You’re probably thinking schmaltz birthday cards. Well, think again. A hallmark is a distinctive feature that usually connotes a sense of excellence. Think of something that allows you to distinguish what is truly excellent from what is merely average. The hallmark of a fine champagne, for instance, is the presence of bubbles; the hallmark of a good education is vocabulary.

The hallmark of a well-functioning democracy is a means by which corrupt organizations can be kept in check.



If you’re somewhat familiar with history, you’ve probably heard that sailors used to navigate the ocean according to the position of Polaris, the North Star. The obsolete root lode- means main, or chief. Figuratively speaking, lodestar means anything that acts as a guide, usually in a positive sense.

Because Beethoven was Schubert’s musical lodestar, Schubert was inspired to write nine symphonies just as Beethoven had; indeed, Schubert was so in awe of Beethoven that he stopped at nine lest he should be charged with trying to one-up the master. 



Piecemeal is an adjective that describes any process that improves/changes bit by bit. It connotes a sense of disorder and a lack of planning. I think of many cities I’ve visited over the years: there is no uniform grid. Rather cities have developed in a piecemeal fashion, usually into a sprawling, unwieldy mess (which oftentimes gives these cities some of their “charm.”).

Over the past couple of decades the city center has been gentrified in a piecemeal fashion so that some of the cafes and stores that once were the embodiment of chic now seem dated, giving the area more of a bygone than an up-and-coming feel.



Despite the images this fun word conjures, it has nothing to do with riding a bike an innovative fashion. Freewheeling describes any process free order, laws, or regulations. Freewheeling can also describe a person who is heedless of rules.

In Milos Forman’s movie classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the protagonist, Randle Patrick McMurphy is a freewheeling ex-con, who transforms the rule-bound world of a mental asylum into a bedlam of decadence.  


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2 Responses to GRE Vocab Wednesday: Confusing Compound Words

  1. Karan April 18, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    I recently took the GRE and got a score of 331 and 4.5 in AWA. I was wondering how much preparation is needed for TOEFL even after GRE verbal prep.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele April 18, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

      Hi Karan,

      It looks like you did really well on the GRE – the verbal included. I’m guessing the TOEFL should be a breeze. The only thing that the TOEFL tests that the GRE doesn’t is listening comprehension. As long as you can do well at that, you will pass with flying colors.

      Good luck!

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