Try Your Best to Pass This Vocabulary Quiz

Torrance Grey

Image: Witthaya Prasongsin / Moment / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Vocabulary: It's not fair (just, equitable, impartial) that we should be judged on it, yet it's inevitable (inescapable, unavoidable, predestined) that we are. There are several kinds of vocabulary fails: using the wrong word altogether, using a limited and unimaginative range of words or using slang words too new to be acceptable in business, academic or otherwise formal settings. (Our use of the word "fails," above, might be an example of this). 

Another word-choice sin, one that we don't think about as often, is talking or writing over the head of your audience. If you're well-educated, it might make you feel brainy to use the word "adiaphoristic," but if no one understands what you mean, you're not communicating effectively. The first rule of speech or writing is to get the point across. If you haven't done that, what else matters? (FYI: "adiaphoristic" is essentially "agnostic," or not having a strong feeling about an issue). 

A fun fact about vocabulary: The average speaker has a working vocabulary of about 2,000 words. This isn't just true of English, but across most of the world's languages. What about professional writers? Let's theorize that their stock of words is, say, about 50 percent larger. That gets us to 3,000 words. Here's the fun part: William Shakespeare, according an analysis of his written works, had an astounding 18,000-word vocabulary! So if you have difficulty understanding him, take heart: Even people in his own day were challenged. 

We don't expect you to have a five-figure vocabulary ... but we've created a quiz that might stretch the one you do have. Set aside your dictionary, rely on your brain and see how well you do! Good luck!

If daylight is "waning," it is becoming ... ?

You might be more familiar with this word in relation to the phases of the moon, which "waxes" and "wanes." But it can be applied to many things. Your enthusiasm for a hobby might be "waning," for example.

If you want to tell a "lewd" story, who would be the best audience?

A "lewd" anecdote is one that's risque or dirty, so the first three choices would not be good ones. OK, you might get some coolness points from the high-school class, but keep it up and you'd probably be called into the principal's office and reprimanded.

What does a "logician" study?

Sometimes things are just as simple as they appear. Logic is a subset of philosophy, so it's an academic subject at the college level. Fun fact: The word "logic" is descended from the Greek "logos," which both means "word" and "rationality." In the Greek mind, language was linked to reason. Interesting!

If you're facing a "conundrum," what lies ahead of you?

According to the Merriam-Webster site, our first stop for all things words-and-language, a "conundrum" used to also mean a riddle involving wordplay, e.g "When is a door not a door? When it's ajar." Today, you most often see "conundrum" used to mean "a problem with no easy solution."

What's the best definition of "mariner"?

"Mariner" is an old-fashioned word for "sailor." It survives today in the poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and in the name of Seattle's baseball team. If you chose "sauce chef," you might have been thinking of marinara sauce, in which "marinara" does mean "sailor style."

Which of these is the best definition of "canny"?

The word "canny" means wised-up or cagey. Advisory: Don't use "uncanny" to mean "naive" or "innocent." It actually means "strange, hard to believe" or even "eerie." If these words were etymologically related in the past, they've drifted apart in the intervening years.

What would a "heterogeneous" group of people contain?

"Heterogeneous" means containing a variety of types. This term doesn't have to apply to people: A pound filled with different types of dogs has a "heterogeneous" mix as well.

If you're having a "confection," what are you eating?

"Confection" is an old-fashioned word for a dessert or candy. Reviewers in various fields have adopted this word to describe something light, pleasing, or joyous: a romantic comedy might be a "confection," as might a prom dress.

A "pathogen" is a term in which scientific field?

A "pathogen" is a microscopic organism that causes disease, like a bacterium or virus. From this, we get our word "pathology," which is the study of how diseases develop and run their course. The latter term has been adopted by psychiatry; a practitioner might refer to the "pathology" of a narcissist, despite the fact that no microbe caused this disorder.

Among these, which is the best synonym for "colleague"?

A colleague is someone you work with, usually in a white-collar field that requires education and pays well. In other words, this term offers a glimpse into the class divide: a cancer researcher has "colleagues," while the pharmacy clerk has "co-workers."

If someone is "fence-sitting," what can't they do?

You'll also hear the term "staying on the fence" for this kind of indecisiveness. At the time of the writing of this quiz, mid-2019, there are a lot of "fence-sitters" in politics, waiting to see which of the field of 20 Democrat candidates for president will rise to the top.

If your boyfriend or girlfriend is "mercurial," what marks their personality?

This term comes to us from the god Mercury, the messenger of the Olympians, who was both fleet of foot and changeable in personality. Early astronomers named the closest planet to the sun "Mercury," because it changed position in the sky more rapidly than any other planet. From this came the idea that a changeable person was under the influence of the planet Mercury.

An "intuition" is a more formal word for a what?

Gamblers often say they have a "hunch." But if you're in a more formal setting, like a meeting at work, you might want to say you have an "intuition," about which marketing strategy is more likely to be successful. It just sounds smarter.

Something "gastronomic" is related to which field?

You'll see variants of this word in medicine: a specialist in the stomach and digestion is a "gastroenterologist." On the other end of the spectrum, restaurant reviewers have recently coined the term "gastropub" for a bar that serves food rivaling that of a good bistro.

Which of these words for an unhappy event almost literally means "bad star" in Greek?

It's the second syllable, "-aster," that means "star." It's related to the word "astronomy," for "study of the stars." The syllable "cat-" in "cataclysm" and "catastrophe" is also from Greek, and roughly means "action" or "force."

Is it a compliment if someone calls your personality "saccharine"?

"Saccharine" means "unpleasantly sweet" or "sickly sweet." You might be inclined to think that this word was adopted from the artificial sweetener, but that's not the case. The word dates back to at least the 17th century.

Which of these words, similar to "saccharine," is a food term that also refers to bad art or storytelling?

This is a Yiddish word for fat used in cooking, so the idea is that it's greasy, tasty, crowd-pleasing ... but ultimately not very high-class. The term "schmaltz" then became a word for movies or music that is crowd-pleasing but not very subtle or smart. The adjective form is "schmaltzy."

Something left over from an earlier era is called a what?

A "relic" can be a good or a bad thing, depending on context. We treasure "relics" from our early lives, like Valentines from school days or ticket stubs from a great baseball game or opera. On the other hand, if somebody calls *you* a "relic," it's not a compliment.

To "dwindle" is to do what?

Here's a bit of trivia you might remember from an early episode of "The West Wing": There are only three words in English that begin with "dw." They are "dwindle," "dwell," and "dwarf." President Bartlett challenges his staff to name them in a late-night meeting.

"Ecclesiastical" describes something related to ______.

"Ecclesiastes" is, you might already have known, a book of the Bible; it dispenses wisdom of a somewhat sober variety. More generally, the word "ecclesiastical" means "relating to the church or an assembly of citizens." We refer to the "ecclesiastical calendar," for example, which dictates when Holy Week or Epiphany will fall in the year.

What does a "mendacious" person frequently do?

"Mendacity" is the tendency to lie, and "mendacious" is its adjective form. This is the kind of word that people, like writers or those speaking publicly, reach for when they want to avoid the L word, but get the point across anyway.

Where does something "amphibious" thrive?

We learn in primary school that frogs are amphibious, both comfortable swimming in water and hopping on land. Later, the word is more likely to refer to vehicles, like military craft that are launched from boats but used in beach landings.

Which of these words means "a bad situation"?

"Predicament" is similar to the word "conundrum," found elsewhere in this quiz. A predicament is a little more boots-on-the-ground: it's a situation, not an intellectual riddle, as the other word sometimes is.

What's the most basic definition of the word "granular"?

This is the essential definition of "granular." We have to specify "basic" or "essential" because this word has been adopted to mean, "containing many parts, detailed, complex." It's not uncommon to hear entrepreneurs calling their processes "granular" these days.

True or false: To have a "temperament" means to be easily angered.

One's "temperament" is his or her emotional nature altogether, or their disposition. Don't confuse it with "temper," which is something that makes a person easily upset or given to anger.

If a person is "befuddled," he or she is ... ?

This word has the slightly comic sound that many early Anglo-Saxon terms have. If you want to sound a bit more elegant, even when describing yourself as baffled, use the Latin-derived "confused" instead.

Something "municipal" is related to a _____.

This is not exactly a synonym for the word "urban." That word is broader in scope, and can refer to areas, lifestyles, attitudes and more. "Municipal" is generally limited to politics, regulations and the like.

You might call someone who likes to fight _______.

"Pugnacious" is from the Latin word, "pugnare," meaning "to fight." Did this Latin term also give a name to the "pug" dog, which, though small, has the pushed-in face of the boxers and other bully breeds? We can't be sure; the origin of "pug" is unknown.

If you want to find a more original way to say you were charmed by something, you might call yourself what?

"Enthralled" is a stronger term than "charmed." Bear in mind, its root word is "thrall," which used to mean a slave or indentured servant, so when you say you're "enthralled," you are, in a sense, implying that your mind and senses have been taken captive. Use this one wisely!

Which of these is the best definition of "nomad"?

You'll still run across this term in books and articles about anthropology. Many early peoples were nomadic, traveling to find water or game, instead of staying in one place. With the world's population reaching 8 billion, and territorial lines being drawn accordingly, this kind of lifestyle is harder and harder to pursue.

If the cat "abetted" the dog in knocking something off the counter, what did it do?

You might be familiar with the legal phrase "aiding and abetting." This is redundant, as formal legal terms sometimes are. Both mean that one person assisted another in a crime. In the example above, we're not talking about a crime, per se ... but that cat and dog know they did wrong! Look at those faces!

What does it mean to be "maimed"?

This is not, needless to say, a good thing. A "maiming" results in a permanent disfigurement, loss of a limb or disability. To just be "injured" or "wounded" implies that you might recover fully.

Which of these might "coagulate"?

To "coagulate" is to thicken or even solidify entirely. Blood does this outside the body, when exposed to air; it's a healthy response that stops blood loss. If your blood does not easily coagulate, you might have a disorder that needs treatment.

Rarely used, the word "furl" means to do what?

"Furl" means to roll or curl up. You'll more often hear its antonym, "unfurl." Or rather, "unfurled": This word will never go out to style as long as songwriters need a rhyme for "world," which doesn't have many rhyming words.

If someone calls you a "yokel," they think you just arrived from where?

A "yokel" is a rustic, uneducated country fellow. Yes, "fellow": For some reason, this mildly unflattering term is almost always applied to men, at least when it's singular. "Yokels" might be a crowd of both men and women.

About HowStuffWorks Play

How much do you know about dinosaurs? What is an octane rating? And how do you use a proper noun? Lucky for you, HowStuffWorks Play is here to help. Our award-winning website offers reliable, easy-to-understand explanations about how the world works. From fun quizzes that bring joy to your day, to compelling photography and fascinating lists, HowStuffWorks Play offers something for everyone. Sometimes we explain how stuff works, other times, we ask you, but we’re always exploring in the name of fun! Because learning is fun, so stick with us!

Explore More Quizzes