GRE – Interesting Word Origins

Interesting Word Origins

Many vocabulary words don’t come from exotic languages, but via Greek or Latin. Still, some very interesting back stories (etymologies) accompany these words, and, hopefully, make these words easier to remember.



Cilia are small, thick hairs. One area on our bodies that contain cilia are our eyebrows. Supercilious is derived from the rising of these brows. Of course a word that means raising one’s eyebrows would probably have limited use. It’s what the raising of eyebrows connotes. Apparently, to be supercilious is to be haughty and disdainful. That is, when we look down at someone in a demeaning way, we might be tempted to lift our brows.


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Proteus was a Greek god who was able to take on any shape. A trait that would make him very difficult to find were he trying to elude you. However, today’s usage of protean simply means taking on many different forms or shapes. The connotation of the word is positive, and implies that a person is very versatile.

Picasso was a protean artist, at one moment sketching a bull reminiscent of ancient cave paintings, the next rendering the animal in a jumble of cubes.



The Sartorius muscle is found on your legs and crosses from the back, near the hamstring, all the way to the base of the quadriceps, at the front of the leg. The name Sartorius was derived from the Latin for tailor. You may ask what a leg muscle has to do with a person who stitches clothes? Well, whenever a tailor was at work, he/she would cross his or her legs. In order to do so, a tailor must employ a special leg muscle, the Sartorius. Today, sartorial does not relate directly to the muscle or tailor, but rather to the way we dress (makes sense considering tailors work with clothes).

Monte was astute at navigating the world of finance, however sartorially he was found wanting—typically a beige tie attempted to complement a gray suit and white pants.


The etymology of this curious word can be traced to two sources: alchemy and astrology. For alchemists, Saturn was related to the chemical lead. When a person has severe lead poisoning, he or she takes on a very gloomy and morose disposition. Astrologists, on the other hand, believed that the planet Saturn was a gloomy and morose. Usually, we would be loath to attribute human characteristics to large floating rocks, but remember, these were astrologists. Either way you look at it, to be saturnine is to be morose.



From the element mercury, which has no fixed form and constantly changes, we have the word mercurial. Mercurial refers to personality; anyone who easily changes his or her mood easily is known as mercurial. This is a very common GRE word, so make sure you learn it.


Keep in Mind

All of these words are important, high-frequency GRE words. So, test yourself later and see how many you can remember. See, also, if you can remember the back story to these fascinating words.

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  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!

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