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GRE Vocabulary Wednesdays: Popular GRE Words

There is no overarching theme this week, besides the fact that each word below is very likely to show up on the GRE. None of these words are easy GRE words – they are all quite difficult and most likely would not show up in the easiest vocabulary section. You could very well see them in the very first verbal section.



Ameliorate comes from Old French via the word meilleur, which means to make better (if you speak Spanish you may notice the similarity to the word mejor). To ameliorate means to make a bad situation or condition better.

While antibiotics have an ameliorative effect, destroying microorganisms, oftentimes antibiotics can upset the body’s natural balance, leading to the proliferation of other bacteria, such as C. difficile.



To be perspicacious is to be discerning and astute. Somebody who is perspicacious can walk into a room and quickly pick up on people’s personalities, even if those people have said very little. Nose burrowed in Orwell or Dosteovsky, a perspicacious reader does not to go scrambling for the Cliff Notes; he or she has the penetrating insight necessary to fathom even some of the more recondite themes.

A good way to remember perspicacious is to remember that per- is the root for through and spic- is the root for to see. Somebody who is perspicacious can see through things to the heart of the matter.

Perspicacious should not be confused with the similar sounding word, perspicuous. The latter means easy to understand, and typically refers not to a person’s aptitude but an account or written work that is easy to understand.

For all his perspicacity on the human condition, the author was remarkably gauche in polite company, often prattling on about some esoteric tomes as his interlocutor became visibly agitated.  



This is one of GRE’s favorite words. Over the years it has made numerous appearances on actual tests. Part of the reason is students think the word has a neutral or positive connotation. Knowing that the root fid- means faith will only hurt you. See, the per- is different from the usual per- that we just saw in perspicacious. This per-, which is not at all common, means ill-effect.So perfidy means disloyalty and treachery. A person who is perfidious has an ill-effect on the faith of their friend.

Today Benedict Arnold has become synonymous with the word ‘traitor’ – his perfidy towards his country came to the fore when he tried to sabotage the fledgling original colonies by conspiring with the British.



Ever read a movie review in which the reviewer is highly critical of a movie and really cuts into the movie’s flaw with scathing wit? Well, if you haven’t, just open up any edition of the New Yorker and such trenchant commentary will jump off the page. Trenchant, which describes any commentary that is biting and scathing, is different from asperity in that it does not describe a person’s manner.



A person known for a harsh tone or manner is known to have asperity. I remember a teacher I had in 2nd grade, who only had to stand in front of the class to silence. For the way in which she knitted her brows and wielded the ruler spoke of the utmost asperity. Her harsh demeanor in no way belied the way spoke—when she called my name my blood would curdle.


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