Roots be Damned! GRE Vocabulary Can Spring from Exotic Tongues

Did You Know?

English is a voracious language—wherever it encounters a new word, it swallows it up and makes that word one of its own. As a result, many words from foreign tongues and distant dialects have made their way into the English language. They’ve also made their way onto the GRE.

And on these GRE vocabulary words, there is no way roots can help you. You either know the vocab, or you don’t.


Picayune would make for a good 2,000-dollar jeopardy clue, one which would probably read something like this:

Improve your GRE score with Magoosh.

Don’t trifle with us–this word comes from Cajun country via France and refers to a 19th century coin of little value.

What is picayune, would be the correct answer (thanks, Alex!).

Derived from Cajun via Provencal France, picayune refers not only to a coin but also to an amount that is trifling or meager. It can also refer to a person who is petty. Therefore, if I’m being picayune, I’m fussing over some trivial point.


This word means an outcast. It comes from Tamil, a language spoken in South India and Northeast Sri Lanka. While India is on the other side of the world (at least from where I’m sitting), it should come as no surprise that we have acquired words from Tamil. After all, the British (remember, the people who “invented” English) colonized India and greatly influenced her for more than a century. The influence went both ways, as we now have words like pundit, meaning an expert in a particular area. And any pundit on geography and linguistics can tell you that another common language spoken in India is English.


This word is fun to say. It definitely wouldn’t be fun to see on the GRE, if you didn’t know what it meant. So let’s make sure that doesn’t happen. A nabob is a wealthy, influential person. This word also comes from Hindi, and was originally used by Indians to describe a wealthy British person living in India. While it is not as common as pundit and pariah, nabob applies to many living here in the U.S., though I don’t think it a good idea to call Donald Trump a nabob to his face.


This word comes from Swahili and means master. The word was originally from Arabic, and meant father.


Okay, German is by no means a distant tongue, or for that matter, an exotic one. Zeitgeist, however, doesn’t look anything like your typical English word. Translated literally from German, zeitgeist means “time-ghost”. In terms of an actual definition, zeitgeist means spirit of the times.

Each decade has its own zeitgeist—the 1990s was a prosperous time in which the promise of the American Dream never seemed more palpable. The zeitgeist of the 2000’s was a curious admixture of fear and frivolity; when we were not anxious over the state of the economy and the world, we escaped into reality T.V. shows, either those on popular network or the ones we would create ourselves on Youtube.

The Takeaway

A good idea while learning GRE vocabulary is to look at the origin (or etymology) of the word. Doing so can oftentimes yield a fascinating back story on a word. And don’t forget—the more associations you have with a word (especially interesting ones), the more likely you’ll be to remember that word. And that’s no picayune matter.

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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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9 Responses to Roots be Damned! GRE Vocabulary Can Spring from Exotic Tongues

  1. Jen July 21, 2013 at 1:14 am #

    First of all, a big THANK YOU to all of you at Magoosh. You guys have made our life much simpler and without all your efforts most of us would probably be at sea.

    I hate to nitpick but it rankles me to no end when I see a word falsely attributed to another language. I’m talking about the word Pariah, which actually comes from Tamil and not Hindi.

    But you’re right, the word does come from India, just not from Hindi (which is a fairly new language compared to the ancient classical language Tamil).

    I apologise again for I really don’t mean to be a niggler.

  2. dinesh July 11, 2012 at 5:20 am #

    hi chris,
    i am from india. I have lot of doubts regarding gre it necessary to prepare thousands of words or else any tips to remember the words and use them in the sentence………plz plz plz help me

  3. Angela April 10, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the interesting post! Do you think it is crucial to learn word roots for the new GRE? I’ve been studying the Kaplan New GRE Verbal Workbook (before coming across Magoosh), and there are only about 113 new words I picked up in the book. I plan on also studying the words in practice questions. I would think if I learned word roots, I could at least guess if I didn’t know the word. What do you think?


    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 10, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

      Hi Angela,

      That is a great question!

      The short of it is do not memorize roots to learn vocabulary. Kaplan endorses the roots approach, but until now I have not found a single student who finds it effective.

      The thing is roots are great once you know a word, but applying them to unknown words results in all sorts of confusion, i.e ben – good (beneficent, beneficial, etc). Then you see benighted, which means ignorant, and so much for the root ben-.

      The best way, in my humble opinion, is to learn vocab, actively use it, and read often ( so you encounter those words (and new ones). If you look at the top of the blog there is a menu bar. Click on vocabulary and there are many other helpful tips (and vocab posts :)).

      • Angela April 10, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

        That is what I experienced studying for the vocab portion, but I wanted to be sure. Thanks for your advice!!

        • Chris Lele
          Chris April 11, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

          You’re welcome!

      • David July 13, 2014 at 3:06 am #

        Wouldn’t the root of benighted actually be “be-“?

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