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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Shades of Knowing

One can be a consummate expert, and know everything there is to know about one field of learning. On the other hand, one can know very little and be impervious to instruction. Then there is everything in between, from those who seem to exhibit a special ability to know something before it happens to those who simply know a little something about a whole lot of things.

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Many claim to possess psychic powers. They can flip a card, look at your astrological chart, or just get you to call them up on a 1-900 line, and, in doing so, tell you what will happen in your future. In other words, they claim to have the power of clairvoyance.

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The word comes from French (clair– means clear and voir- means to see), though the French aren’t the only ones who can claim this remarkable—though potentially spurious—ability.



The definition of this word fits very snugly with the meaning of its roots. Prae- means before, and scire- means to know. To be prescient is to know about something before it actually happens. Those who forecasted, back in 2007, that the housing and financial markets would take a nosedive turned out to be prescient—as that’s exactly what happened.

Prescient is very similar to clairvoyant but is not as extreme. In other words, if it is creepy that your prediction turns out to be correct, like, say, you predict that the stock market will hit 17,000 on Oct. 21, 2014, and it turns out to be correct.   Prescient implies a keen sense of how trends are going to change. So if you say the stock market will hit 17,000 sometime towards the end of 2014, then you are prescient (as long as that turns out to be the case).


This is an uncommon word, and probably one that wouldn’t show up on the GRE. It is essentially a poetic way of saying ignorant. It comes to us via the same root as prescient. The root ne- means not. So basically, nescient means not knowing.



To have a smattering of knowledge about something is to have a superficial knowledge of it. For instance, I’m sure you have a smattering of knowledge on many different things, be it cooking, astronomy, pop music, and even GRE vocabulary.


So far all the words, with the exception of nescience, have been about relatedly flattering in regards to knowledge. Obtuse is flat out pejorative, and means really slow to understand. For instance, my wife thinks I’m remarkably obtuse when it comes to using the T.V. remote. She always tells me the various buttons to press, but I watch T.V. alone so infrequently that I end up forgetting.

Obtuse, by the way, should not be confused with an obtuse angle from geometry, which means larger than 90 degrees (so don’t think obtuse means large!). Interestingly, though, an angle that is less than 90 degrees is an acute angle, and the word acute (I’m moving away from geometry now) is the opposite of obtuse. A person with an acute sense of electronic gadgetry would probably be able to figure out how the three remote controls on my television all converge on bringing a single image on my screen.



A polymath is one who is an expert in many different subjects. Leonardo Da Vinci, Aristotle, and Isaac Newton were all polymaths (though the last of these three had a knowledge limited mostly to science). Polymath has almost become an anachronistic term. That is, today there are so many fields of knowledge to master that few can really be called polymaths (even those folks on the American game show Jeopardy who win ten games in a row, typically only have a smattering of knowledge, since the questions on Jeopardy don’t probe too deeply into any one field of learning).


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