GRE Vocabulary List: Words with Multiple Meanings

Scattered pile of cutout letters representing words with double or multiple meanings - image by Magoosh

GRE vocabulary can be tricky because many words on the exam have double meanings. When the GRE tests double meanings, it’s usually the secondary definition of common words. Some words even have multiple meanings (we’re talking triple, or even quadruple meanings here). Sounds intimidating? Not to worry. I’m here to go over some of the most common words with multiple meanings you might encounter on GRE Verbal.


 

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Top 10 GRE Words with Secondary Meanings

When it comes to figuring out which of a word’s multiple meanings is being used in a GRE verbal question, I recommend identifying the part of speech used in the sentence. Doing so will usually help you determine whether the question is testing the secondary meaning of any of the words. However, this trick won’t help if you don’t know the secondary meaning(s) of the word.

So, let’s go over some of the most common GRE words with secondary meanings.

  1. Tender
     
    Tender is a verb, and it does not mean to behave tenderly.

    With this letter, I tender my resignation.

  2. Intimate
     
    Just as tender doesn’t relate to two people in love, neither does intimate, at least on the GRE. The secondary meaning for intimate is to suggest something subtly.

    With her body language, Ana intimated that she wasn’t comfortable giving her speech anymore.

  3. Wanting
     
    Wanting means lacking.

    If your knowledge of secondary meanings is wanting, this post is a perfect place to start learning.

  4. Becoming
     
    Another secondary meaning that changes parts of speech, becoming an adjective. If something is becoming, it matches nicely.

    Her dress was becoming and made her look even more beautiful.

  5. Start
     
    The secondary meaning for start is somewhat similar to the common meaning. To start is to suddenly move or dart in a particular direction.

    He started like a deer in headlights when I snuck up behind him.

  6. Fleece
     
    If you are thinking Mary Had a Little Lamb (…fleece as white as snow), you have been fleeced by a secondary meaning. To fleece is to deceive.

    Remember Joe, who fleeced me in college of $200? He recently got charged with embezzlement.

  7. Telling
     
    If something is telling, it is significant and stands out.

    Her unbecoming dress was very telling when it came to her sense of fashion.

  8. Wax
     
    Melting wax will only lead you astray. The secondary meaning for wax is to increase. The opposite of wax is to wane.

    I wish students were honest with me about not doing the reading instead of waxing poetic about nothing that has to do with the text.

  9. Check
     
    To check is to limit, and is usually used to modify the growth of something.

    When government abuses are not kept in check, a ruling body is likely to become autocratic.

  10. Qualify
     
    This is perhaps the most commonly confused secondary meaning and the one that is most important to learn for the GRE. To qualify is to limit, and is usually used in the context of a statement or an opinion.

    I love San Francisco.

    I love San Francisco, but it is always windy.

    The first statement shows my unqualified love for San Francisco. In the second statement, I qualify, or limit, my love for San Francisco.

    In the context of the GRE, the concept of qualification is usually found in the reading comprehension passage. For example, an author usually expresses qualified approval or some qualified opinion in the passage. As you may have noticed, the authors of reading comprehension passages never feel 100% about something. They always think in a nuanced fashion. Therefore, they are unlikely to be gung-ho or downright contemptuous. That is, they qualify, or limit, their praise/approval/disapproval.

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More Common Words with Double Meanings

Here are some additional words for which the GRE likes to test double meanings, or what I like to call “hidden definitions.”

Involved

We are involved in many things, from studying to socializing. For something to be involved, in terms of the GRE definition, means it is complicated and difficult to comprehend.

The physics lecture became so involved that the undergraduate’s eyes glazed over.

Retiring

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Sure, many people dream of the day when they can be retiring (preferably to some palatial estate with a beachfront view). The second definition does not necessarily apply to most. To be retiring is to be shy, and have the inclination to retract from company.

Nelson always was the first to leave soirees – rather than mill about with “fashionable” folk, he was retiring, and preferred the solitude of his garret.

Expansive

Yes, expansive means expansive. It also means communicative, and prone to talking in a sociable manner.

After a few sips of cognac, the octogenarian shed his irascible demeanor and became expansive, speaking fondly of the “good old days”.

Moment

A moment is a point in time. We all know that definition. If something is of moment, it is significant and important (think of the word momentous).

Despite the initial hullabaloo, the play was of no great moment in Hampton’s writing career, and, within a few years, the public quickly forgot his foray into theater arts.

Base

When the definition of this word came into existence, there were some obvious biases against the lower classes (assuming that lexicographers were not lower class). It was assumed that those from the base, or the lowest, class were without any moral principles. Hence, we have this second definition of base to mean contemptible and ignoble (the word has since dropped any connotations of lower class).

She was not so base as to begrudge the mendicant the unwanted crumbs from her dinner plate.

 

  • Takeaway: When reading, always be sure to look up common words if you think they are being employed differently than what you’re used to. Many words have multiple definitions that are totally unrelated to the common meaning.

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GRE Vocabulary Words with Multiple Meanings

Buckle up because we’re moving into “multiple meanings” terrain here! These words have, not just two, but three or more definitions. Here are some of the more commonly found words with multiple meanings.

Hedge

If you are really into horticulture—which is a fancy word for gardening—you’ll know hedges are shrubs or small bushes that have been neatly trimmed.

If you know your finance, then you’ve probably heard of hedge funds (where brokers make their money betting against the market). Hedge can also be used in a verb sense meaning to limit something. If you hedge your bets, you play safely. If you hedge a statement, you limit or qualify that statement.

Finally, hedge can also mean to avoid making a direct statement, as in equivocating.

Flush

What word means to turn red (especially in the face), to send down the toilet, to be in abundance, and to drive out of hiding? Yep, it’s flush, which has all four of these totally unrelated definitions.

Fell 

Imagine an evil person who cuts down trees, and then falls himself. Well, that image is capturing three different definitions of fellto cut down a tree, the past tense of fall (we all know that), and evil. Yes, I know, fell can’t possibly mean evil…but the English language is a wacky one. Fell indeed means terribly evil.

Arch

You have arches in architecture or at a well-known fast-food restaurant. You can arch your back or a bow. Arches are even a part of your foot.

But, did you know that “to be arch” is to be deliberately teasing, as in, he shrugged off her insults because he knew she was only being arch?

Finally, arch- as a root means chief or principal, as in archbishop.

Beg

Commonly, when we think of begging, we think of money or a favor. But, one can also beg a question, and that’s where things start to get complicated.

To beg a question can mean to evade a question, invite an obvious question, or (and this is where it starts to get really tricky) to ask a question that in itself makes unwarranted assumptions.

For instance, let’s say you are not really sure if you are going to take the GRE. If somebody asks you when you are going to take the GRE, then that person is assuming you are going to take the GRE. That is, they are begging the question. If you avoid giving a direct answer, then you are also begging the question (albeit in a different sense). Which finally begs the question, how did this whole question-begging business get so complicated in the first place?

At this point, you may very well not want to take the GRE. But be reassured—there won’t be too many words with more than two meanings on the test. For the most part, you’ll mainly see secondary and primary definitions. And, if you end up seeing a string of polysemous words (a fancy way to saying “words with many meanings,”) you can exclaim to yourself archly, “What a fell test this is! Just don’t flush your score report down the toilet.”

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Bonus Multiple Meaning Words

This is by no means an exhaustive list of GRE vocabulary words with multiple meanings, but it’s a good place to start. Work through these first, then head over to our GRE Vocab Wednesdays YouTube playlist to learn more tricky GRE vocabulary words!

  1. Catholic
  2. Obtain
  3. Disposed
  4. Patent
  5. Afford
  6. Gratuitous
  7. Confound
  8. Mushroom
  9. Balloon
  10. Fleece
  11. Comb
  12. Signal
  13. Imbibe
  14. Inundate
  15. Scintillating
  16. Benighted
  17. Galvanize
  18. Essay
  19. Flag
  20. List
  21. Appropriate

These are some of the most common words with double, triple, or even quadruple meanings! For more GRE vocabulary lists, check out GRE Root Words and Prefixes to learn about some tricky prefixes and their definitions.

And if you’re wondering where to start with your GRE vocabulary learning journey, we’ve created this quiz to help! Just answer a few questions about your vocab level, and we’ll recommend the right FREE GRE vocabulary flashcard set for you!

P.S. Ready to improve your GRE score? Get started today.

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8 Responses to GRE Vocabulary List: Words with Multiple Meanings

  1. Saqib Malik November 13, 2020 at 12:09 pm #

    How can I improve my English???

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 24, 2020 at 7:44 am #

      Hi Saqib, our TOEFL blog has a lot of great resources for improving English skills. Check it out!

  2. Amy November 23, 2018 at 12:11 pm #

    What’s the best way to study words with multiple meanings? Is there an app?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 26, 2018 at 10:27 am #

      Great question! To my knowledge, there isn’t a reliable app for this. Part of the reason there’s no one app that really works for all this is that there are so many words in English that have at least two meanings.

      Fortunately, there are still many good ways to study words that have multiple meanings on the GRE. First and foremost, make sure you notice when a GRE Verbal question features a word with several different possible meanings. It’s especially important to note the times that GRE uses a word in an unusual way.

      For both GRE reading passages and other GRE-like reading practice, you should also keep a word journal of unusual alternate word meanings you come across. As you spot and record these words, two online dictionaries are particularly useful. Use Vocabulary.com or Wordnik.com to look up all the meanings of a given word; these two dictionaries are especially comprehensive for words with multiple meanings.

  3. Chris Lele
    Chris April 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    Sure, no problem :). The English language is truly tricky!

  4. Aman April 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    Wow these are really tricky …i didn’t knew fell ,beg n flush can have such meanings…
    Thanks Chris

  5. Chris Lele
    Chris November 5, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    Great! I am happy you are enjoying these vocab posts!

  6. Erika Klara November 5, 2011 at 9:36 am #

    Wow Chris!

    You are doing such a wonderful job!

    erika


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