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Economics graduate schools require the GRE General Test, a test of students’ knowledge in high school math, random vocabulary and passage reading, and techniques of writing a basic essay. This test is somewhat absurd — a copy of the SAT that is effectively no harder yet costs \$205 to take and \$27 to send scores per school.1 I registered for the GRE about a month ago and took it last week, getting my scores back yesterday.2 The GRE writing section mimics standardized essay testing in high school, while the math section (most important for economics graduate school3) only tests math before trigonometry. Because of that, I spent most of my time on my one weakness; the vocabulary part of the reading section.

The part that kept me engaged in this study was being able to learn about word etymologies. I love learning about the history of words, the changes in their nuances, how one language borrows from another, and how it all fits together into this wild hodgepodge of English that we know today.

Below is a collection of fun histories for 10 words that I found for the first time while studying flashcard decks; here’s hoping that you find a few of these interesting. These etymologies are taken from a myriad of sources, including the Online Etymology Dictionary, Wiktionary, Merriam-Webster, and Google’s native etymology support when you search up a word.

From the Greek word bombyx, meaning “silk” or “silkworm”. The root word “bombast” originally referred to cotton padding used to fill up a garment; bombast and bombastic then took on a figurative meaning of “fluffing up” writing. While the literal meaning has gone away, the term bombastic remains as a term to describe pretensions, inflated language.
Hermes Trismegistos, or “Thrice-Great Hermes,” is the supposed author of a series of texts that describe “spells and initiatory induction procedures” called the Hermetic Corpus, texts that later grew popular among alchemists in the 16th century. One of these texts described a process for making a glass tube airtight; this led the word hermetic meaning “sealed airtight” and also eventually to the word hermit (“recluse”).
sardonic, laconic4
These two similar-looking words were both used by the Greeks as adjectives to describe their neighbors. Laconia was home of the Spartans, known for being terse – thus, laconic. Similarly, sardonic is a reference to Sardinia, a reference first used in the Odyssey, meaning “scornfully mocking”. While the reason for this reference is unclear, it’s hypothesized that the Greeks believed that sardonion, a plant from Sardinia, could cause so much laughing that it could kill someone.
In French, gauche simply means “left”. It has a meaning in French of “awkward”, and derives from older roots meaning “to veer” and older roots meaning “to trample”. Even older roots in Proto-Indo-European meaning “bend” or “curve” also led to the word wink.
Blandishment is related to the word bland, but have quite different meanings. They both come from the Latin word blandus meaning “soft” or “smooth”. Bland got the “dull, uninteresting” side of blandus, whereas blandishment now means flattery, or “smoothing over”.
The background on this word meaning “to cheat or defraud” is ambiguous. One interpretation suggests that it is related to the word cousin and the French word cousiner meaning “to cheat on the pretext of being a cousin.” Another theory suggests that it is related to the Middle English word cosyn (with the same meaning), which itself derives from coçon, a word in Old French meaning “trader”. This, in turn, derives from cocionem, a Latin word meaning “horse dealer”.
There are two definitions for aspersion: the sprinkling of water during religious ceremonies, and the far more common meaning of an attack on someone’s character. The Latin word asperus means “to sprinkle”, and Shakespeare used this as to describe a sprinkling of rain that was perceived as a blessing. However, because a sprinkling of something can also cause stains, this word evolved into its current sense, describing words that “stain” someone’s reputation.
This word derives from the Greek words phainein, “to show”, and sukon, meaning fig, of all things. Two possible etymologies exist for this word, meaning “excessively servile flatterer” – however, in Ancient Greek, it meant “slanderer”. The origins behind its original meaning are unclear; the leading modern theory suggests that it referenced a rather rude gesture done in Ancient Greece. An alternative theory (with no substantial evidence) claims that it references opportunistic farmers who tried to avoid declaring their figs as they entered the marketplace, only to be outed by “fig revealers.” Either way, when this word entered English in the 1500s, its meanings shifted from “slanderer” to “informer” to now “flatterer”.
toady, a synonym of sycophant, originates from the 19th-century phrase “toad-eater”. This phrase was used to describe an assistant for a charlatan, trying to sell off their not-so-effective remedies. The assistant would appear to eat a poisonous toad, convincing the crowd that the wares being sold were effective at preventing illness and poison. While the association is no longer there, the word has achieved the day-to-day sense of “one who acts excessively servile”.
In Latin, facere means “to do”, while totum means “the whole of”. In essence, this word is the Latin analog of the phrase “do-it-all”, but all in one word. In the late 1500s, the phrase Johannes factotum came into use, translating as “John do-it-all”, or “Jack of all trades”, as it’s more commonly known today.

If you’d like to read more fun etymologies, I suggest The Word Detective by John Simpson, who served as Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary for 20 years. While his book is not just about etymology (it’s a memoir of his life and becoming involved with the OED), there is an aside every few pages about the obscure origin of some word or phrase. I promise that reading about the literal making of dictionaries is incredibly exciting :)

  1. However, the GRE does allow you to send 4 free score reports. How generous. 

  2. Since them, some graduate programs have decided to not accept the GRE at all, the most prominent being UC Berkeley. It remains to be seen whether all of my studying was for nothing… 

  3. From my understanding, top programs seem to expect a perfect score on math; that corresponds to the 96th percentile. Perhaps the GRE General isn’t the best way to differentiate math skill levels at high levels. Math graduate schools have the GRE Math Subject Test, and economics graduate schools do look for other signals of math ability (math classes taken, particularly real analysis), so I’m not sure why they’d give any weight to a test like this. 

  4. It’s not cheating to count two words as one if they’re related, right?