GRE Vocabulary: Tips To Score Well

I always tell my students that GRE vocabulary is all around us. A mean looking person is truculent. A friend who is running late is dilatory. And if they are habitually late, they are potentially feckless. But don’t become truculent!

In some cases, GRE vocabulary is not only around us, but actually lurks within us. Sounds scary? Well “humor” yourself and have a look at the five words derived from the inside of the human body.


Jaundice is a condition of the liver that has the side effect of turning the skin yellow. The second definition—and the one you have to know for the GRE—may seem completely unrelated: to be biased against as a result of envy or prejudice. In the 17th Century, being yellow, apparently, was associated with having prejudice. Hence we have the second definition of the word jaundice. It is important to note that yellow now, at least colloquially, means to be cowardly. This definition does not relate to jaundice.


Many people like this word for the simple reason that it’s fun to say. After all, how often do we get to see the summery month of June in a word? All this niftiness aside, the definition of jejune (sadly) is a letdown. To be jejune is to be dull, insipid and lacking flavor. No, it can’t be, you think. But yes, jejune, our delightful word—means something that is actually…meh.

But it gets even worse for poor jejune—it is derived from the first part of the large intestine, the jejunum, where food is digested. Now jejune does not only mean boring, it also conjures up images we’d rather leave in the dark.

Finally, jejune has a second definition. Jejune though is yet again a victim of bad PR. To be jejune (secondary definition) can also mean to be childish and immature.

Now that I’m done lamenting jejune’s debased status, I’m going to have a jejune fit.


Speaking of nasty stuff in the body, bilious comes from bile—you know, that yellow stuff in your liver that every once in awhile makes a very unwelcome gustatory appearance.

To be filled with bile, however, doesn’t mean to have a bad taste in your mouth.

According to Hippocrates, he of the bodily humors, if we are filled with too much bile, we are angry. Therefore to be bilious is to be constantly irritable and ready to bite somebody’s head off.


Hippocrates, along with the Roman physician, Galen, believed that the body was filled with humors, or fluids. The balance of these humors led to certain moods. If a person had too much black bile he (usually not she) would be said to be choleric, or highly irascible. (Choleric was more Galen’s nomenclature, as Hippocrates stuck to bilious, a synonym for choleric).


But not all is bad in the world of bodily humors. Meet sanguine, from the Latin sanguineus, which comes from blood. Not that most of us would consider blood a humor, but according to Galen blood, along with bile/choler, was one of the four bodily humors. And while this bloody association doesn’t bode well for the definition of sanguine, surprisingly, sanguine means to be cheerful, optimistic.

How did this ever come to be? Well, when we are happy the blood rushes to our cheeks turning them red. (Yes, this seems to me about as valid as yellow meaning prejudice—not that green with envy makes any sense.)

While sanguine has a positive definition, the word sanguinary—note the sang- root—means a carnage or bloodbath. Yes, I know English can be a confusing language. But if you learn these high-frequency GRE words you will have something to be sanguine about!

For the last ten years, Christopher S. Lele has been helping students excel on the SAT, GRE, and GMAT. Some of his GRE students have raised their composite scores by nearly 400 points. He has taken many GMAT students from the doldrums of the 600s to the coveted land of the 700+. Chris posts helpful tips and strategies for Magoosh GRE test prep.