If You Get 29/35 on This Vocabulary Quiz, You Can Fake Your Way Through Harvard


By: Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

Vocabulary: It's so important that most college-entrance exams have a whole section devoted to it. And the pressure's not off once you get into university! Even if it's not really fair, people will judge you on how well you express yourself in job interviews, on dates and in day-to-day life. Unfortunately, the world is full of people who blow a gasket over use of the word "irregardless." Which, we'd like to point out, Merriam-Webster has recognized as a word!

Maybe you're one of those "irregardless"-hating persons. Maybe you've made a study of the English language. There's a lot to learn, and a lot to know. The English language is a mix of Latinate words  -- by way of the French language, which came over with the invading Normans in 1066 -- and earlier Anglo-Saxon words. But the diversity of vocabulary doesn't stop there. English later became the language of an empire, and in its global travels picked up words from the countries it colonized, like India. "Avatar" and "juggernaut" are among the Hindi terms. Some of English's mathematical terms come from Arabic, because of the Arab world's supremacy in math in Europe's Dark Ages.  

Whether you know etymological roots or not, we've got a quiz that'll test you on English's more obscure terms. Ready? Good luck!


This word also has a legal meaning. "Contempt of court" is a charge that means a person is not cooperating as required with a court proceeding, and can result in jail time.



This word comes to us from the Latin "pugnare," or "to fight." It's related to the word "pugilist," a fancy term for "fighter."



A well-known one is the French paradox. The traditional French diet includes a lot of fat (oh, those cheeses!), but they have a low rate of heart disease. It's thought to have to do with their consumption of olive oil and red wine, smaller portions, and active lifestyles.



It's usually children or teenagers who are thought of as precocious. They could be clever, emotionally mature or unusually talented.



If you got this one right off, you might have been helped by the "Harry Potter" books. Remember the "pensieve" in Dumbledore's study? It was where he held his memories for later review.



When monocles went out of fashion, filmgoers were deprived of a great sight gag: the toff who is drinking at his club when a shocking sight makes his eyes widen and his monocle fall into his martini.



What separates "idiom" from "dialect"? The second one is often geographical; "idiom" is for speakers united by something else. Gen-Zers might have a certain idiom; so would wine aficionados, and so on.



This word comes to us from German, and gained popularity in the World Wars, where shortages required a number of "ersatz" products, like coffee and flour. (Thanks to Merriam-Webster's site for this bit of etymological trivia).



The romantic poems of yesteryear are full of "bosky glades." It is etymologically related to "bush."



This word uses the prefix "trans-" and the Latin word "lux" to mean a substance that lets light through, but is not transparent. You can only see through a translucent substance in a cloudy, obscure way.



You most often find this used in a medical setting, like a doctor palpating for a tumor. However, it makes us wonder about the name of "Emperor Palpatine" in the Star Wars movies. Maybe he was a serial groper?



"Diurnal" is the less-used companion to "nocturnal." Actually, it's used as frequently in animal biology and related fields, but it just hasn't made its way into everyday language the way "nocturnal" has, perhaps because of our fascination with night and its phenomena.



You might hear about a person being "impervious to criticism." It's also used in relation to water; for example, in water-repelling fabrics.



Entertainments are usually described as "bawdy." Often, there's a comic sense to the word, but not necessarily. A dance revue where you'll see a lot of skin can be described as "bawdy" even if it's not funny.



"Collective" is often used in the meaning of "workers' collective," in which a group shares both tasks and earnings. Or in "collective memory," an idea from psychology in which a group with a shared history has shared memories.



This sounds like it could be a verb, but it's a noun. It's often used as the phrase, "lose its luster," meaning that the shine has gone off something once desirable.



You might be more familiar with the term "polygamy," which means, "married to several people at once." That word comes up in the news whenever the government cracks down on a separatist religious group that practices it.



You might be most familiar with this phrase as "pre-emptive strike." That term originated in military language, and means to attack an opponent before they attack you.



This one is easy to remember because of the vernal equinox. That's the day in springtime when night and day are of equal length.



If somebody "contrived" to get a job, you know it wasn't just a matter of filling out an application. This word can have a negative meaning: In a review, a movie's "contrived plot" is not a good thing.



A cartographer makes maps. The word comes from the French "carte," for "card," and is related to the name "Magna Carta."



When a bodily function is "autonomic," it happens without conscious control. Fun fact: Most people would say that the balancing of one's head on one's neck is autonomic, but it's not. What happens when you start to fall asleep in church or during a lecture? Your head tips over!



You'll often hear this word in the sense of "pristine beach" or "pristine forest." Some word lovers object to this because these parts of nature, no matter how clean, are millions of years old, and therefore not in "like-new" condition.



"Forego" and "forgo" are often mixed up. The second term means "to pass up or give up" something. It's really unfair how alike these two words are.



"Parse" had a heyday during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Talking heads on cable news were always referring to "parsing" President Clinton's statements, especially, "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."



This word gained unexpected prominence in mid-2018 when President Trump used it in a tweet. He used it in relations to "Fake News," which should surprise no one following the president's Twitter feed.



Surprise! This is not an adjective, despite the -r ending. Vernacular is everyday or nonstandard language, but not quite slang. For example, "parameter" is a specific word from computer science, but in everyday speech, it just means a defining boundary.



This old-fashioned and whimsical word doesn't get a lot of use today. It still comes into play as a euphemism, when the speaker can't bring himself or herself to say anything more explicit.



"Cerulean" often comes into play describing the ocean or a sea. But you'll also find it in romantic novels, usually describing a heroine's eye color.



We're used to hearing "primary" and "secondary," especially in medical settings. However, if you hear someone refer to a "tertiary effect," it's one that comes third in severity, or perhaps third in time of onset.



Don't confuse this with "stellar." That more broadly used term means "like or of a star" and can also mean "outstanding." But "stellate" is specifically for star-shaped things. Exit wounds from gunshots, for example, can be stellate.



"Choler" was one of the four bodily "humours" that supposedly gave people their dispositions -- at least, according to early European thought. Choler was a fluid which, if it was dominant in one's body, made a person quick to get angry.



This comes to us from the Latin 'finistra,' meaning window. In early modern Europe, unpopular political leaders were sometimes killed by defenestration; it was like an early-retirement plan without the golden parachute.



The French call this either "arriviste" or "noveau riche." It's the sort of person who can afford the sailboat, but doesn't fit in at the Marina Club.



Aristotle and his disciples were known as the peripatetic philosophers, not because they traveled widely, but because they walked back and forth as they debated. To this day, "peripatetic" the common adjective is as likely to mean "walking a lot" as it is "globetrotting."


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