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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Return of the Commonly Confusable Words

Once again, it’s time for a recurring segment of Vocab Wednesday: commonly confusable words. Which of course isn’t quite the same as commonly confused words, which features words that look/sound different than their actual definition (also an important category!).

The category of commonly confusable words deals with pairs of words that look awfully similar—such as the ones below.


Capitulate vs. recapitulate

To capitulate is to give up or surrender, usually in some competition or battle. The word comes from the Latin, caput, meaning head. I think of someone relenting, or lowering his or her head in defeat.

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To recapitulate means to recap, or summarize the main points of. Unlike, recap, recapitulation tends to show up in more fancy academic contexts:

Thorton’s text, in an attempt to recapitulate the history of Plantagenets, misses some salient aspects of the dynasty.  


Founder vs. Flounder

The first word can also mean somebody who starts a company—but you knew that already. The other definition is to fail (which no founder wants to think about at the inception of his or her company).

To flounder is also a negative word, but means to move with great difficulty, usually because of the medium (they floundered about in the mud, moving only a few paces at a time). To flounder can also connote mental struggle (he took the GRE cold-turkey and floundered in the beginning sections).


Gallivant vs. Galvanize

The first word means to have a great night about the town (a word that probably wouldn’t show up on the GRE, and something we definitely don’t recommend doing the night before taking the GRE).

Galvanize, a relatively high-frequency GRE word, means to stimulate or excite into action. As in, this list should galvanize you into studying vocabulary if you don’t know most of these words—and your test day is imminent


Prodigious vs. Prodigal

A Jeopardy champion has a prodigious memory; elephants have prodigious ears. The amount of mineral wealth in Africa is prodigious; the number of GRE Wednesdays are verging on the prodigious (I think I’ve done over a 100 J). If you haven’t guessed, prodigious means great or immense in size, degree, or intensity. And if you want to do very well on the GRE verbal, you need a prodigious vocabulary.

The prodigal son is a story from the Bible about a young man from a wealthy who decides to take a little trip, gallivanting (and gambling!) about the Mediterranean.  After blowing all his father’s wealth he comes back and asks for forgiveness. In modern American, the prodigal son would probably be thrown out of the house or put in some 12-step program. In the story from the Bible, however, the father forgives the son his prodigality. If you haven’t guessed it yet, prodigal means wasteful, especially of money or resources.


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2 Responses to GRE Vocab Wednesday: Return of the Commonly Confusable Words

  1. Dee November 23, 2013 at 2:28 am #

    Thanks for a great list once again, Chris.

    Learning vocab for GRE has opened my eyes to not just new words, but made me realize that I was wrong about a few of the familiar ones. I always thought if someone was prodigal, they were a runaway since the only context I have heard the word in was “Ah! The prodigal son returns!”.

    Now thanks to you, I am sure I will not flounder when I see this word on the GRE.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele November 25, 2013 at 11:45 am #

      Hi Dee,

      That’s the thing about context: it can illuminate, or it can mislead. I’m happy the definitions above were illuminating :). And great use of the word “flounder” :).

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