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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Word Workout

Building a Muscular Vocabulary in 10 Easy Steps

Word Workout

Charles Harrington Elster

St. Martin's Griffin



Word 1: DEPRAVITY (di-PRAV-i-tee)

Wickedness, moral perversion, corrupt or evil character or behavior.

Synonyms of depravity include deviancy, degeneracy, baseness, vileness, iniquity (word 2 of Level 4), debauchery (di-BAWCH-uh-ree, see debauch, word 30 of Level 5), and turpitude (word 49 of Level 6). Antonyms include virtue, integrity, uprightness, rectitude (word 35 of Level 1), scrupulousness, impeccability, and probity.

Depravity began as the shorter word pravity, which came to English in the 16th century through Middle French pravité from the Latin pravitas, crookedness, irregularity, deformity. The prefix de-, which has several meanings, was added by the mid-17th century and in this instance means completely, thoroughly, to the bottom or core, as in denude (di-N[Y]OOD), to strip completely, make bare; despoil (di-SPOYL), to take all the spoils, and thus to rob, plunder, pillage; and deliquesce (DEL-i-KWES), to melt away completely, dissolve.

In modern usage depravity always applies to morals and, because of that intensifying prefix de-, suggests thorough corruption or wickedness: the sexual predator's depravity. The adjective is depraved, corrupt, wicked, perverted, as depraved fantasies, a depraved lifestyle, a depraved appetite for drugs.

Word 2: PRESUMPTUOUS (pri-ZUHMP-choo-us)

Overly forward, taking undue liberties, acting or speaking too boldly, venturing beyond the limits of proper behavior or good sense.

Synonyms of presumptuous include arrogant, impertinent (word 20 of Level 1), impudent, insolent (word 5 of Level 2), shameless, overweening (word 46 of Level 6), and brazen.

One of the meanings of the verb to presume is to take undue liberties, or, to take upon oneself without permission or authority. For example, you can presume to know what's good for someone else, presume you can do something better than someone else, or presume to speak when you ought to be silent.

From this sense of presume comes the adjective presumptuous, overly forward, unduly confident or bold. When you are presumptuous you go beyond what is considered appropriate or proper, or you take it upon yourself to do or say something without permission or authority. A presumptuous person takes undue liberties with others, such as bossing them around or making unwanted amorous advances. Presumptuous speech is overly bold or arrogant. Presumptuous logic is overly confident in its rightness and arrogantly ignores the flaws in its reasoning.

In its more common sense, presume means to suppose, believe, take for granted, infer—as when Sir Henry Morton Stanley, upon finding the explorer David Livingstone in Ujiji, Tanzania, in 1871, famously asked, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" In this sense it is often interchangeable with assume. But sometimes a fine distinction can be drawn between these two words.

When you assume, you suppose something that is realistic or probable, that is likely to happen or be true: teachers assume that their students will do their homework; employees assume they will be paid. When you presume, you suppose more boldly and confidently, believing or asserting the likelihood or truth of something that may be doubtful or wrong: optimists presume things will always work out for the better; students often presume to know the answer to a teacher's question.

The distinction between the nouns assumption and presumption, however, is slightly different. An assumption can be anything supposed or taken for granted, often without any probable evidence: "Before Copernicus and Galileo, the common assumption was that the earth was flat." A presumption is anything supposed or believed that is based on probable, though not conclusive, evidence: "The $3.8 trillion budget released by the White House on Monday includes $150 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years on the presumption that a health care bill will be adopted" (The New York Times).

In law, the notion that a defendant is innocent until proved guilty is called "presumption of innocence," which Black's Law Dictionary defines as "the fundamental principle that a person may not be convicted of a crime unless the government proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, without any burden placed on the accused to prove innocence."

Word 3: GRANDIOSE (GRAN-dee-ohs, rhymes with handy dose)

Showy and grand in an exaggerated, artificial way; affected, inflated, pompous.

Synonyms of grandiose include pretentious, highflown, ostentatious (AH-sten-TAY-shus), bombastic (bahm-BAS-tik), grandiloquent (gran-DIL-uh-kwint), and turgid (TUR-jid).

Although grandiose has been used of things that are impressive without being objectionable—as when Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1843, wrote, "This grandiose character pervades his wit and his imagination"—the word is usually used in a disparaging way of something that tries so hard to impress or appear grand that it seems showy and pompous. A person's way of dressing, behaving, or speaking can be described as grandiose if it is so affected or exaggerated as to border on the absurd.

Grandiose may also mean unnecessarily complicated or elaborate, extravagant, overblown. In this sense we often hear or read of grandiose plans, ideas, or dreams, and grandiose architecture, music, or terminology.

The noun is grandiosity (GRAN-dee-AH-si-tee).

Word 4: DISSEMINATE (di-SEM-i-nayt)

To spread widely, scatter as if sowing seed.

The verb to disseminate comes from the Latin disseminare, to sow, spread abroad, from dis-, apart, away, and semen, seminis, seed, that which is sown or planted, the direct source of the English semen (SEE-min), which dictionaries typically define as "a viscid, whitish fluid produced in the male reproductive organs and carrying spermatozoa." Viscid (VIS-id), by the way, means thick and sticky.

The Latin semen, seminis, seed, is also the source of the words seminary and seminal. A seminary may be a place where something originates and is nurtured and developed (a seminary of provocative ideas for tackling social problems), or a school where people study theology and are trained to become ministers, priests, or rabbis. The adjective seminal (word 39 of Level 5) literally means like a seed, and therefore so original and important as to influence later development or future events (a seminal scientific study that charted the course of all subsequent research).

Synonyms of disseminate include broadcast, disperse, and promulgate. Of these, to broadcast, to spread abroad, make widely known, is closest in meaning to disseminate. To disperse may mean to move or scatter in different directions, as the crowd dispersed; to send or drive off in different directions, as the police dispersed the crowd; or, like disseminate, to spread abroad or about, distribute, as to disperse heat or a disease dispersed throughout the city. To promulgate (pro-MUHL-gayt or PRAHM-ul-gayt) means to make known formally or officially, publish, proclaim, as to promulgate a new policy of amnesty, or to teach publicly, advocate openly, as to promulgate the doctrine of nonviolence.

Word 5: ECLECTIC (i-KLEK-tik)

Varied or diverse in an interesting way; selecting, or consisting of selections, from a variety of sources, especially the best of those sources. "Not confined to any one model or system," says The Century Dictionary, "but selecting and appropriating whatever is considered best in all."

Although the adjectives eclectic and diverse are close in meaning, they are not synonymous. Diverse means having variety, consisting of different kinds. You can have diverse opinions, a diverse society, or a diverse wardrobe. In careful usage, eclectic does not mean merely varied but rather selected thoughtfully, with the goal of achieving an interesting variety. Thus, although an eclectic collection of music may include many kinds of music, and in this sense be diverse, eclectic also implies that this variety was achieved by careful selection rather than by chance.

Unfortunately, eclectic is often used as a showy substitute for diverse by writers who are not sensitive to the subtle distinction between these words. For example, the phrase China's eclectic cuisine is poor usage because the Chinese invented their own diverse cuisine; they did not select it with care from other great cuisines of the world. And the phrase an eclectic mix of people milled in front of the building is also poor usage because the mix is random, not intentionally arranged. Only if people have been chosen to create an especially interesting mix can a group be called eclectic.

Haphazard means selected or assembled at random or by chance, without any thought for arrangement. Diverse and miscellaneous both mean of mixed character, composed of different kinds of things, and usually do not imply judgment or taste in selection. Eclectic should always imply judgment and taste in selection, especially choosing the best from a variety of sources. An eclectic approach to philosophy or religion selects from them those ideas that seem best, while an eclectic diner will go to various restaurants, sampling a bit here and a bit there, looking for the best fare to be had.

Word 6: SERVILE (SUR-vil, rhymes with chervil)

Like a slave, slavish, submissive, obedient, subservient, yielding.

Servile is the adjective. The noun is servility (sur-VIL-i-tee), submissive behavior, unquestioning obedience, or the condition of being a slave or servant.

Synonyms of servile include groveling, fawning, truckling, toadying, sycophantic (SIK-uh-FAN-tik), and obsequious (uhb-SEE-kwee-us). All these words suggest submissive behavior, but in slightly different ways.

To grovel (GRAH-vul or GRUH-vul), from Middle English and Old Norse words meaning facedown, prone, is to lie or crawl with one's face down. Because, in days of yore, this position was assumed to show humility and obedience before a noble person or one's superiors, grovel came to be used figuratively to mean to humble oneself out of loyalty, remorse, or fear.

To fawn, which dates back to 1225, originally applied to animals, especially dogs, and meant to show delight, affection, or a desire for attention in the manner of a dog—in other words, to wag the tail, whine, crouch, roll submissively, and so on. By the early 14th century fawn had come to be used figuratively of submissive behavior intended to gain notice or favor, and today this word applies to anyone who curries favor by apple-polishing or kissing up: the pop star's fawning admirers; she fawned on her boss in hopes of a promotion.

What we now call a trundle bed, a kind of low bed that moves on casters and can slide under a larger bed when not in use, was originally called a truckle bed. The verb to truckle at first meant to sleep in a truckle bed, but because the person who slept in the truckle bed was invariably the servant or pupil of the master, who slept in the more comfortable high bed, truckle soon came to mean to act like a servant or a fawning pupil, to submit or yield meekly. You can truckle to, as in this 1789 quotation from Samuel Parr's Tracts Warburton: "He was … too proud to truckle to a Superior." Or you can truckle for, as in this quotation from 1885: "Doubtful people of all sorts and conditions begging and truckling for your notice."

In his Dictionary of Word Origins, Joseph T. Shipley tells how "medieval traveling medicine-men" used to have an assistant who would swallow a live toad, or seem to, "so that the master could display his healing powers." The assistant came to be called a toadeater, which was eventually shortened to toady and used of any flattering follower, a person who truckles to the rich or powerful. To toady is to be like a toady, to be a yes-man or apple polisher.

A sycophant (SIK-uh-funt, with -phant as in elephant) is an especially self-serving kind of toady. The word goes back to ancient Greek and in English originally meant an informer or malicious accuser. Today the word refers to those who attempt to gain influence or advancement through fawning flattery and slavish subservience. And while the toady is merely a faithful follower or servant, underneath his guise of servility the sycophant is usually a scheming backstabber.

The adjective obsequious comes from the Latin obsequi, to comply with, yield to, obey. The obsequious person follows the wishes or bows to the will of another, and is always ready and willing to serve, please, or obey. "I see you are obsequious in your love," wrote Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Our keyword, servile, comes from the Latin adjective servilis, slavish, of a slave, from servire, to be a servant or slave. Because of this derivation, servile has always been used of those who accept an inferior position and whatever menial duties and undignified concessions come with it. A servile person is a bootlicker, a kowtower, one who behaves in the bowing, cringing manner of a servant or slave.

Antonyms of servile include unruly, defiant, intractable (in-TRAK-tuh-bul), refractory (ri-FRAK-tur-ee), recalcitrant (ri-KAL-si-trant), and intransigent (in-TRAN-si-jent).

Word 7: VORACIOUS (vor-AY-shus)

Extremely hungry, having a large appetite or cravings that are difficult to satisfy.

Voracious may be used either literally, of great physical hunger, or figuratively, either of a great appetite for intellectual or emotional nourishment or of an excessive eagerness or greed for something. A voracious reader is an extremely avid reader; a voracious lover is one whose appetite for erotic pleasure cannot be satisfied; a voracious look is a hungry, desirous, and perhaps predatory look.

Synonyms of voracious in its literal sense include famished and gluttonous. Synonyms of voracious in both its literal and figurative senses include insatiable (in-SAY-shuh-bul or in-SAY-shee-uh-bul), ravenous, rapacious (word 10 of Level 2), and edacious (ee-DAY-shus).

Word 8: CONVOLUTED (KAHN-vuh-LOO-tid)

Intricate, complicated, very involved, hard to unravel.

Convoluted comes from the Latin convolutus, the past participle of the verb convolvere, to roll together, roll round, intertwine, the source also of the unusual verb to convolve, to roll up, coil, twist, and the more familiar noun convolution, a winding, coil, twist or fold, as of something rolled upon itself: "It hath many convolutions, as worms lying together have," says the earliest citation for this word, from 1545, in the Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter the OED).

The morning glory is a common plant known for its ability to support itself by twining around anything its vigorous tendrils can grasp. Like the morning glory, which twists and coils itself around things, that which is convoluted is so intricate and complex, so folded in upon itself, that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to unravel. A long, complex argument—or even a complicated sentence—is often described as convoluted. Mathematical equations and philosophical reasoning can be convoluted, and the regulations of the federal tax code are notoriously convoluted. The human body also has its well-known convolutions: the brain is a convoluted mass of gray and white matter, and if you were to unravel the convolutions of the small intestine it would stretch to more than twenty feet.

Word 9: RANT (rhymes with slant and can't)

To speak in an excited, vehement, or violent manner; speak fervently or furiously.

Synonyms of the verb to rant include to storm, rage, rail, denounce, fulminate (FUHL- or FUUL-mi-nayt), and inveigh (in-VAY).

To rant comes from an obsolete Dutch word meaning to talk foolishly, rave. In the early 1600s Shakespeare and Ben Jonson used rant to mean to speak or declaim in an extravagant or melodramatic manner, and the word has since often been applied to actors or orators who delivered grandiose speeches. Though this sense is still in good standing, by the mid-1600s the now-familiar expression to rant and rave had appeared in print, and rant by itself was more often used to mean to talk in a wild, furious, or delirious manner. By the early 20th century rant had also come to be used to mean to engage in a long, vehement, and often furious speech. The noun rant is a lengthy and intemperate expression of outrage, dissatisfaction, or disgust. (Intemperate is word 22 of Level 3.)

Word 10: STRATAGEM (STRAT-uh-jem)

A trick, deception, ruse, artifice; specifically, a clever scheme or artful maneuver used to deceive, outwit, or gain an advantage over an enemy, adversary, or rival.

Stratagem comes from the Greek strategein, to be in command, from strategos, a military commander, general, and is related to the more common word strategy. A stratagem, a deceptive and sometimes underhanded maneuver, is one element of a strategy, which is a more far-reaching plan to achieve a goal or attain victory. For example, the D-day invasion of Europe at Normandy was the stratagem the Allies employed in their final push to defeat Hitler. And a ruthless business strategy to outstrip the competition might involve various ethically questionable stratagems.

Although stratagem comes ultimately from ancient Greek, English acquired the word in the 15th century from the Old French stratageme, which is why we spell it with an a in the second syllable and not with an e, as in strategy. Take care to spell it stratagem, not strategem.

Review Quiz for Keywords 1–10

Let's review the ten keywords you've just learned. Consider the following questions and decide whether the correct answer is yes or no. Answers appear here.

1. Would stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family be a sign of depravity?

2. Is it presumptuous to ask for directions when you're lost?

3. Can someone's speech be grandiose?

4. Does the sanitation department disseminate garbage?

5. Can a person's library be eclectic?

6. Is a disobedient child being servile?

7. If you can't get enough of something, are you voracious?

8. Can writing be convoluted?

9. Do radio talk show hosts sometimes rant about politics?

10. Would an unsuccessful stratagem help you gain an advantage?

* * *

Now let's turn to the first of the features that will appear throughout Word Workout after each set of ten keyword discussions.

Difficult Distinctions: May and Might

Some people think the words may and might are interchangeable, but they are not. There is a subtle difference in the degree of probability they express.

"May poses a possibility; might adds a greater degree of uncertainty to the possibility," writes Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer. "This shade of difference appears in the following sentence: ‘Any broadcasting station that airs more commercials than the code allows may be fined, and in extreme cases its license might be taken away.'"

To put that another way, may indicates greater possibility than might. If a weather report says it may rain, you should take an umbrella. If it says it might rain, you can take the umbrella or take your chances.

Difficult Distinctions: A or An?

"In elementary school, I was taught to use an before vowels and a before consonants," writes a faithful reader named James. "But recently I've heard more and more people say an before words beginning with h, in phrases such as an historic event. Is this correct?"

Your teachers taught you right. If a word begins with a vowel or vowel sound, use an (an idea, an egg). If it begins with a consonant, use a (a friend, a story). The general rule, say nearly all the usage guides published since the 19th century, is that if the h is sounded, use a. If it is silent, use an. Thus, a history, a happening, a humble man, but an hour, an honor, an herb.

The problem with certain words beginning with h, such as historic, is that the first syllable is not stressed and the h may seem to be suppressed, so the speaker is tempted to use an. The Brits, who have a history of dropping their h's, tend to use an—except with herb, because they pronounce the h. But in American English the h is sounded in historic, historical, hysterical, hypnosis, humble, and heroic, and, as Mark Twain noted back in 1882, "Correct writers of the American language do not put an before those words."

* * *

Now let's move on to the next ten keywords in Level 1:

Word 11: EMACIATED (i-MAY-shee-ay-tid)

Of a person or animal, abnormally thin, wasted away from disease or starvation. The verb is to emaciate (i-MAY-shee-ayt), to waste away, become abnormally lean or thin.

Emaciated applies only to people and animals; it is not used of plants or inanimate objects. Thus, you could use emaciated of a starving person or an abnormally thin model, but you would say a withered or shriveled flower and a deteriorated or dilapidated house.

Synonyms of emaciated include scrawny, gaunt, shrunken, skeletal, haggard, malnourished, rawboned, and wizened (WIZ-und). Antonyms include obese, portly, rotund, corpulent (word 39 of Level 4), and pursy (PUR-see), which means short-winded from being overweight; hence, fat.

Word 12: MISGIVING (mis-GIV-ing)

A feeling of doubt, hesitation, uneasiness, suspicion, or dread.

The prefix mis- begins many English words and often means bad, badly, wrong, or wrongly. For example, a misadventure is a bad, unfortunate adventure; misbegotten means badly begotten, poorly or illegally conceived; to misrepresent is to represent wrongly or falsely; and to misuse is to use in the wrong way. A misgiving is by derivation the giving of a bad feeling.

The noun misgiving was formed in the late 16th century from the now unusual and literary verb to misgive, to arouse suspicion, doubt, or fear in the mind or heart, as when John Milton writes in Paradise Lost (1667), "Yet oft his heart, divine of something ill, misgave him." Misgiving is probably more often used in the plural, misgivings, of feelings that shake one's confidence, belief, or trust: "They began to have misgivings about the project after residents expressed their strong opposition at the town meeting"; "It was an amorous adventure, yet he did not enter into it without certain misgivings, for he did not know whether she was sincere or merely playing with his feelings."

The noun qualm, keyword 18 of this level, is a close synonym of misgiving.

Word 13: ADULATION (AJ-uh-LAY-shin)

Excessive admiration, praise, or flattery; overzealous devotion; hero worship.

Synonyms of adulation include fawning, servility, blandishment, obsequiousness (uhb-SEE-kwee-us-nis), and sycophancy (SIK-uh-fun-see). All these words—especially servility, obsequiousness, and sycophancy—imply submissive, deferential, or slavish behavior that is designed to gain favorable attention.

Adulation comes from the Latin verb adulari, to fawn upon like a dog, cringe before, and since the poet Geoffrey Chaucer used it, in 1380, the word has had the pejorative connotation of doglike servility. (Can you discern—to detect with the eyes or the mind—from the context what pejorative means? You'll meet pejorative again, as word 17 of Level 6.) While adoration is pure, denoting reverent homage (HAHM-ij), love, or worship, adulation is exaggerated and sometimes hypocritical, suggesting not respect or veneration but a servile devotion or false flattery that seeks to gain favor. "Adulation ever follows the ambitious, for such alone receive pleasure from flattery," wrote Oliver Goldsmith in 1766.

The words compliment, flattery, and adulation all suggest admiration, but in different ways. A compliment is courteous praise; it may be personal and heartfelt or dignified and formal, but it is never exaggerated or insincere. Flattery is artful and sometimes hypocritical praise designed to appeal to someone's vanity. Adulation is excessive praise, flattery taken to an undignified or shamelessly servile extreme.

Adulation is the noun. To adulate (AJ-uh-layt), to flatter, praise, or admire excessively, is the verb. A person who adulates is an adulator (AJ-uh-LAY-tur), and the adjective is adulatory (AJ-uh-luh-TOR-ee), marked by servile flattery or excessive praise. James Boswell was the adulatory biographer of the 18th-century English essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson. (A lexicographer [LEKS-i-KAHG-ruh-fur] is a maker or editor of dictionaries.)

Copyright © 2014 by Charles Harrington Elster