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GRE Vocab Wednesdays – Words from Myths

Words that are derived from ancient Greek and Roman mythology are so numerous that they almost go unnoticed. Indeed, they are inside a Trojan Horse that has been slipped into the confines of the English lexicon. Quite a few of these stowaways are GRE vocab words.


Tantalus was a figure condemned to the underworld for an unspeakable act. Indeed, he was placed in Tartarus, the deepest part of Hades. His punishment was simple: for eternity Tantalus had to stand waist-high in water, a fruit tree directly above him.

While this setup may not sound like the worst punishment, whenever Tantalus reached out to grab the fruit on the tree, the branches would recede beyond his grip; whenever he would stoop to drink water, the water would sink below his thirsty mouth.

Tantalus of course never gets the fruit, but we do get a great word: tantalize, which means to tempt someone with something very desirable that remains just beyond their grasp.

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If you thought the fruit setup was bad, imagine pushing a massive boulder up a steep embankment only to watch it tumble back down the slope. As soon as it does so, you have to run back down the hill, and instantly begin pushing the boulder back up the hill. (At least Tantalus didn’t have to do any physical labor). Sisyphus, on the other hand, must spend eternity pushing–and running after–his boulder.

Today, we have Sisyphean, a word usually used together with ‘task.’ A Sisyphean task is one that requires a prodigious amount of effort. The word is very similar to Herculean, which, as you can probably tell, also comes from mythology, via Hercules.



Narcissus was a beautiful lad so taken with his reflection in the water that he fell into the pool and drowned (too bad they didn’t have a mirror in those days). Today, a narcissistic person is one who is totally and utterly in love with him- or herself. If the whole narcissism thing gets really bad, i.e., you buy a T-shirt with your face on it, you start a cult, in which you are the leader, etc., then you even get your own clinical diagnosis: Narcissistic Personality Disorder.



Mars was the Greek god of war. No cruel afterlife fate for him. The word ‘Mar’tial simply means relating to war. You’ve probably even hard the word used before: martial arts are the fighting arts.



Taking the phrase “ignorance is bliss” to a whole other level, the Greeks had a special river in Hades (or the underworld) called the Lethe. If you took a sip from the Lethe, you would instantly forget everything, including all your woes. The Lethe-ians—that’s my word–were a very lazy, dopey sort. While nothing made them sad, nothing made them happy. They would just kind of lounge about like mythological manatees.

To be ‘leth’argic doesn’t mean to imbibe from the Lethe. To be lethargic is to be slow and sluggish.


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6 Responses to GRE Vocab Wednesdays – Words from Myths

  1. Dee December 1, 2013 at 10:33 pm #

    Hey Chris,

    Thought you might like this line taken from Forbes, via –

    Getting advertisers to pay for commercial time during programming watched only by pets would be a truly Herculean if not Sisyphean task.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele December 2, 2013 at 11:45 am #

      Ha! Great sentence. Though what a truly a frightening world that would be–if pets could be influenced by ads. I can imagine my two former cats squealing and scratching all night long just because I didn’t buy them the Fancy Feast seafood deluxe just because they saw the fetching ad :).

  2. aditya February 9, 2013 at 12:25 am #

    well the words this week seemed pretty regular, the origin from which the words came were veryinteresting. Thanks Chris

    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 11, 2013 at 11:46 am #

      yeah, these words weren’t necessarily toughies. Harder words from myth – though not necessarily words that would show up on the GRE: procrustean, stygian, nepenthe. Those too have a very interesting backstory.

  3. Praveen February 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    How many words do I need to memorize for the GRE verbal part. I have very less time to prepare and please suggest me best book for verbal part.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

      Hi Praveen,

      That is a difficult question to answer. Even if you study hundreds of words, you aren’t necessarily going to see more than a few on the test. Studying a list of 3,000 words will surely allow you to know most of the words, but such a goal could take months.

      In the short time you have, I recommend you read our vocab ebook.

      Many of the words contained therein, showed up on the practice test release last year. Of course keep up on the vocabulary Wed. posts in general. Another great resource are the ETS GRE tests (Official Guide included). Many words will be recycled test day.

      Hope that helps :)!

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