Can You Pick the Right Definition for All of These Words?

EDUCATION

Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

Did you know that while raw brainpower peaks in the early 20s, vocabulary is one of the things that keeps growing virtually all your life? That's good news for those of us who scored less-than-impressively on the verbal section of our SATs. Of course, this is only true if you work on your verbal skills a bit, keeping your ears open to interesting new words and their meanings. On the other hand, if "LOL" and "OMG" are mainstays of your vocabulary (even when speaking out loud), you might be stagnating. 

That's where our quiz might come in handy. We've rounded up some of English's most useful, elegant and precise words, to shine up your rusty vocabulary. Do you know whether "slovenly" is an adverb or an adjective? Or the difference between "assent" and "dissent"? Or, for that matter, when to use "dissent" and when to settle for plain old "disagreement"? Our quiz will make all these things clear -- but not before it tests your verbal skills. 

So, whether you're never at a loss for words, or you're a little worried about the "word usements you structure" (to borrow a great phrase from Steve Martin in "L.A. Story"), give our quiz a try. We think you'll find it challenging, demanding and rigorous, without being irksome, Sisphyean or vexatious!   

Pensive

This word got a boost from the Harry Potter series. Albus Dumbledore had a "Pensieve" in which he kept and sorted his thoughts. That word is a portmanteau of "pensive" and "sieve," the latter being an instrument for separating and isolating things.

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Herbivorous

"Herbivorous" usually describes animals. Humans are "vegetarian" or "vegan," because our creative diets, even when they don't include animal products, go beyond just grasses and herbs.

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Courtly

The term "courtly" comes to us from the royal courts of Europe, especially England, where men of the court were assumed to have fine manners. A specialized meaning of the term is "courtly love," in which a nobleman loved a married woman, often a queen, only with words and poems, keeping the relationship unconsummated. It was considered the highest form of love.

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Haphazard

To 'hazard a guess" is to guess without much hope of getting it right. "Haphazard" doubles down on this idea of chance, by adding the prefix "hap-" which we also see in "happenstance" and "perhaps."

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Omniscient

There are several "omni-" terms in English that can be confused with each other. "Omnipresent" is "everywhere," while "omnipotent" is "all-knowing" and "omnivorous" means "eating all kinds of things."

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Prologue

Prologues are often found in books. The opposite is "epilogue," the final section of a book that wraps things up.

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Disproportionate

You'll often find this word in the phrase "disproportionate response." Being expelled from school for chewing gum in class would count.

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Persuade

"Persuade" and "convince" are often used interchangeably, but they're not the same. You convince someone of a fact; you persuade them to do something. E.g., "I persuaded her to jump by convincing her the fall was survivable."

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Alienate

Specific people can be alienated from each other, like former friends. But in a larger sense, people who don't fit into a group, or society overall, are described as "alienated."

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Reminisce

The dictionary definition of "reminisce" simply means "to think about the past." But it has gained the connotation of "fondly." When people are said to reminisce over drinks, they're not complaining about hard times.

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Amends

This is a word that you mostly hear as part of a specific phrase: "make amends." In other words, you probably won't hear someone say, "his amends weren't enough for me."

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Adulterate

To clarify, "contaminate" is a harsher term than "adulterate." You wouldn't want to eat contaminated food, but something "adulterated" might just have cheap or inauthentic ingredients, though it's still safe to eat.

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Usury

"Usury" is a term you don't hear a whole lot these days; it's been replaced by "predatory lending." It does come up in discussions of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," in which Shylock was considered a usurer.

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Facsimile

Technically, your fax machine is a "facsimile machine." This is because it receives information that creates a copy of a document that is physically elsewhere.

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Arid

"Arid" refers to a very dry climate or region. The term was adopted, aptly enough, by an anti-perspirant brand.

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Federated

You don't hear "federated" as often as you do "federation," but they both have to do with things being united. This is why "federal" is the term for government services at the national level, not the level of individual states or counties.

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Ascendant

"Ascendant" means "on the rise." Less strictly, it can mean "reigning" or "dominant," like a sports team that's nearly unbeatable.

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Ascribe

"Ascribe" is a finicky word that demands both a direct and an indirect object. You can't just "ascribe Trump's election," you have to "ascribe Trump's election to ____________". (Fill in your favorite reason here).

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Dissent

"Dissent" is usually reserved for serious or political disagreements. It's a bit strong to say there was "dissent" in a family over what kind of ice cream to buy.

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Innuendo

This is one of our favorite borrowings from Latin. "Innuendo" means "by nodding," and thus carries the idea of something said discreetly, without being spoken aloud.

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Domicile

"Domicile" is, of course, closely related to the word "domestic." Both come from "domus," the Latin word for "home."

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Parse

You couldn't avoid this verb during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s. So much had to do with what the president said and what he might have meant by it, that cable-news anchors and guest experts were constantly "parsing" statements.

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Censure

Don't confuse this with "censor," which means to prevent from speaking or printing. "Censure" usually means a public recognition of a wrong that stops short of a punishment; it's similar to an employer putting a note in your file about a mistake on the job.

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Tenet

Example: A tenet of Catholicism is belief in the Immaculate Conception. Fun fact: "Tenet" is also the name of a chain of hospitals, apparently for no other reason than it sounds impressive.

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Palate

"Palate" is a part of the mouth, and more figuratively, your taste in foods. A "refined palate" means you have good, or perhaps expensive, taste. Not to be confused with "palette", the board artists use to hold paint , or "pallet" which is a flat (usually) wooden structure that supports the transport of goods.

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Insular

"Insular" comes from "insula," the Latin word for "island." So an "insular" group of friends is one that keeps to themselves.

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Hale

You'll sometimes see this word as part of the expression "hale and hearty." It's related to both the words "heal" and "whole."

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Penance

"Penance" doesn't usually refer to a harsh punishment like a whipping. A person performing penance is doing an activity to make up for wrongs committed. It implies that redemption is possible.

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Auxiliary

An "auxiliary" is something added on for emergencies or nonessential functions. An auxiliary engine, for example, would kick in when the main engines fail.

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Chauvinism

Though chauvinism is now mostly used to talk about the view of women as inferior, it wasn't also so. The term came from a French patriot, Chauvin, whose enthusiasm for France gave rise to the original sense of "chauvinism" as regional boosterism.

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Enthrall

"Enthrall" today has a good connotation ("the audience was enthralled"). But it has a dark background: "thralls" is an old word for "slaves."

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Slovenly

"Slovenly" is a false adverb, or an adjective that looks like an adverb. English has several of them, including "timely," "lovely" and "courtly" (found elsewhere in this quiz).

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Obsolete

Nothing is created "obsolete"; things are rendered obsolete by time and innovation. If you want to get fancy, use the noun version, "obsolescence."

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Protagonist

If you want to annoy people at a cocktail party, correct them when they say "protagonists." The word is taken from the Greek, and according to the strict rules of Greek drama, can only be singular, not plural.

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Quagmire

You''ll come across the word "quagmire" when reading military history. It's often used to characterize long engagements like the Korean Conflict or the Vietnam War.

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