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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Words about Words

Words can describe almost anything we think up, so it is perhaps not too surprising that there is a subset of words that describe words themselves—how they are deployed (or not), how they can alter our perception, and how they can make us smile and ponder all at once.


We’ve all been guilty of uttering a platitude. Though we might believe we are expressing something profound and original, we are often saying—word-for-word—what’s been said many times before. In this regard, a platitude is a lot like a cliché. But instead of your run-of-the-mill, “life is short,” or “don’t give up,” the platitude takes on the more solemn tone of somebody imparting a moral: “everything happens for a reason” is a repeat offender.


This word is an eponym, which means it is derived from a person’s name. The person in this case is the 19th century philanthropist Thomas Bowdler, who had the noble, if somewhat slightly misguided notion, of censoring William Shakespeare’s works so as to make them more palatable for women and children. On the surface such an undertaking might sound silly, but we must remember that Shakespeare was very fond of the scatological and perverse, his works often reading like exalted potty humor. In honor of removing the objectionable parts, Mr. Bowdler, has the %&# distinction of the word “bowdlerize,” which means to censor or—and here is another great %#&@ GRE word—to expurgate.


A phrase, term, or a label that carries with it a negative connotation is considered a pejorative. This label need not necessarily be an outright insult. In fact, it can be a very neutral word that, over time, has taken on a slightly negative meaning. For instance, “permissive” means to allow another person to do something. Yet over the years the word has taken on a negative tinge. A permissive parent isn’t one who just allows his or her child do something; he or she has likely let the child run rampant.

Interestingly, pejorative terms abound in the world of careers: “garbage man” is a pejorative for sanitation worker; “shrink” is a pejorative for psychiatrist. Of course there is “escort,” which at one time carried the innocuous label of a chaperone. Today, an escort is ah….well, I don’t think Mr. Bowdler will let me write that word here.


For those of you who remember high school chemistry, you might recall that this word is a compound of the element bromine and another element. However, the GRE is not testing the chemistry definition. Bromide actually has a second definition: a trite saying meant to offer comfort. For instance, if you are feeling ill, many well-meaning types are quick to offer a bromide, “get better!” or “I hear it’s going around this year.” While full of the best intentions, none of these expressions does anything to remedy the underlying condition.


This word is no unit of measurement halfway between a gram and a kilogram. Rather, an epigram is a concise and clever expression. When we hear one, we are apt to think: Oh, that was quite witty—and profound! The 19th century wit Oscar Wilde was known for his epigrams. One such epigram attributed to him is: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” (Obviously, Mr. Wilde does not suffer the latter fate.) While this quotes smacks of cheekiness, epigrams can also be deployed in earnest, as this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt shows: “It is better to light the candle than curse the darkness.”


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