MAT Word Game Analogies, Part 4: Etymology and Usage


In the past few posts, we’ve built up a nice little inventory of word game analogies: special subtypes of question that you might encounter on the MAT. (Not sure what I mean by “word game analogy?” See this post for starters.) We’ve looked at some examples involving spelling, as well as a few involving pronunciation.

Now we’re headed into the gray area of etymology (word origins) and usage. In a sense, these are semantic properties, because the way a word is used affects how it is understood. (If people started shouting “ice cream!” every time they stubbed a toe or lost a round of Overwatch, it wouldn’t be long before “ice cream” was understood as an expletive.) Distinctions of usage and etymology on the MAT are what we might call “punch-up” traits – that is, they enhance the difficulty of otherwise easy questions.

Etymology on the MAT: Same Meaning, Different Origin

The MAT seldom tests words in foreign languages per se. However, loan words like sushi or macho will appear fairly often. Even more common — on the MAT and in everyday vocabulary — are words that have been in the language so long that we don’t usually think of their origins. This next example consists entirely of such terms.

spy : clandestine :: sailor : ________

(A) seafaring
(B) nautical
(C) nauseous

Let’s assume that the word clandestine (“deliberately secret or secretive”) doesn’t throw us off. (If that assumption’s inaccurate, it’s time to write up a new vocab flash card!) Focusing on semantics first, we might say that “a spy is engaged in clandestine activities.” That’s a pretty straightforward relationship. And a sailor is engaged in … well, either seafaring (A) or nautical (B) would fit here on the basis of meaning alone. We’ll break the tie in a moment, but first let’s rule out those other answers. A sailor – we hope – isn’t habitually engaged in nauseous (C) activities, so we can strike that from the list. Seasick (D) takes us to the same place as nauseous.

All of our answer choices have to do with the sea. Two of them, however, contain Latin roots for sailing and ships (cf. nauta, nausia); the other two use the Germanic word “sea” (cf. modern German See or Dutch zee). This is all we need to clear up the ambiguity between seafaring (A) and nautical (B) – our winner is (B). Here’s one way we might express the analogy.

Clandestine is a Latin term describing a spy’s activities.
Nautical is a Latin term describing a sailor’s activities.

Etymology on the MAT isn’t always a tiebreaker like this. It can also serve the simpler (and less frustrating) purpose of helping you to break down unfamiliar words. The MAT Study Guide (p. 13) models this use in a question about Sinanthropus, an extinct hominid whose fossils were discovered in the 1920s. If you’re not an anthropology or archaeology major, it’s quite possible that a word like Sinanthropus doesn’t mean anything to you. But as the study guide shows, there are still ways to make an educated guess.

Usage on the MAT: Same Meaning, Different Context

Usage can be just as important as etymology on the MAT. The knowledge of how, where, and when a word is used can be the missing piece in an otherwise baffling analogy. Consider this example, which reflects the deceptively simple nature of many MAT analogies.

vest : waistcoat :: _________ : trousers

(A) shoes
(B) socks
(C) underwear
(D) pants

Nouns describing clothing – like most concrete nouns – are rich in potential semantic relationships: part/whole, inner/outer, large/small. Shoes go over socks, a sleeve is part of a shirt, etc. But perhaps because these nouns are so ordinary, there are often important differences in usage from country to country: a jumper in the UK is a sweater in the US, for example.

The analogy above likewise involves a distinction of usage. The pairs of terms mean the same thing in different varieties of English. In the English of the United Kingdom, a vest is a type of undershirt, and a waistcoat is a sleeveless garment worn over a shirt. In the United States, that same sleeveless garment is called a vest. Likewise, in UK English, “pants” is short for “underpants,” and trousers are the outer garment worn on the legs (e.g., khakis or jeans). In US English, that same article of clothing is called pants. Putting that all together, we get the following analogy:

The garment called a vest in the US is called a waistcoat in UK usage.
The garments called pants (D) in the US are called trousers in UK usage.

At this point, you may well be wondering: does the MAT really test this sort of trivia? Trucks versus lorries? Elevators versus lifts? These distinctions seem like material for family-friendly stand-up comedy, but surely not for a graduate admissions test … right? Alas, no. In the officially published practice questions, the MAT has shown that seemingly incidental bits of cultural knowledge are fair game for analogy-building. If botanical terms (Study Guide p. 8) and pastries (p. 12) can make the list, then quirks of English usage are fair game, too.