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TOEFL Vocabulary – Starting Off

Because this is one of the first of possibly very many TOEFL vocabulary posts, we’re going to define some words that have meanings similar to “start.” In other words, this is a “starting” vocabulary post both because it’s one of the first posts and because the theme is “starting.”

But that doesn’t mean all these words have the same meaning and usage! They are said or written in some very different situations, so pay attention to the examples to understand the usage of each.


(to) Commence

“To commence” is to begin a process or event that takes time. It is a formal word, so you won’t hear it spoken often.

From the four words here, “commence” is the closest in meaning and usage to “start.” You could say “The race will commence at 9:00” similar to how you could say “the race will start at 9:00.”

The noun form is “commencement.”

TOEFL example: On April 20, 1861, the firing on Fort Sumter marked the commencement of the American Civil War.


(the) Outset

Notice that this is a noun: the verb form is “(to) set out,” but that is mostly just about travelling. On the other hand, the “outset” can be the start of other processes, not just journeys. We only talk about “the outset” of processes that take a long time and involve decisions and intentions changing. That’s because it comes, metaphorically, from the verb about travel. When we talk about “the outset” we are imagining the process is similar to a journey.

You would not, for example, talk about “the outset of a headache” because the headache is not like a journey. It does not have plans and goals, and it does not change over time.

TOEFL example: No small business owner believes at the outset that his or her business will fail.


(the) Origin / (to) Originate / (to be) Original / Originally

These words are important because they’re related common, but they have some slightly different meanings. The origin of something is the place where it came from. That can be real or it can be metaphorical. An apple has an origin, but so does a word.

“To originate” means to come from that starting place. It is similar to the meaning of “create” or “be created.”

“Original” means that it’s the first of its type. So when you eat a potato chip that’s “original” flavor, it means that flavor was the first type the company created. And if your style is original, it means nobody else has that style.

The adverb “originally” is used to describe a situation before some change. For example, America was originally an English colony. Then it became an independent country—things changed.

TOEFL example: The origin of humanity is a sensitive topic, closely tied to many religious beliefs, but it is nonetheless studied carefully.


(to) Arise

Within the word “arise,” you can see the word “rise.” There’s a reason for that: “arise” is closely related to “rise.” At least, it’s related through metaphor. If something “rises,” that means it’s going up in some way (like the rising sun) or growing (like a rising temperature).

To “arise” is to appear and/or grow enough to become important. It’s usually abstract (not physical) things that arise: problems, situations, questions, etc.

TOEFL example: After the settler’s ships landed, a new problem besides food arose; they had not enough clothing to keep warm in the winter.


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