How Robust Is Your High School Vocabulary?

Torrance Grey

Image: Andrew_Howe/E+/Getty Images

About This Quiz

Ever notice how people — well educated or not — tend or rely on their favorite words, over and over? Furthermore, because we're social creatures (or "herd creatures," to use the less flattering term), we tend to adopt a few favorite words as a group, and then just run them into the ground. Consider "major" in the '80s, "proactive" in the '90s, and "super" today. But "super" is only to be used as an adverb: "That was super fun!" If you use it as an adjective, you sound square: "Thanks, that'd be super!" 

Even people who communicate for a living fall into this trap  — we're looking at you, cable-news folks! For years, we'd had the word "visuals" to mean "how something looks to the public."  But around 2016, suddenly, the buzzword for this became "optics." You couldn't turn on CNN or Fox or MSNBC without hearing about the "optics" of a particular decision a politician made. Optics, optics, optics! Likewise, "buckets" went platinum around the same time. Nobody was caught dead anymore saying "categories" (which was, to be honest, exactly what it meant). No, everything was "buckets": "We have to put these arguments into different buckets." 

It's time to fight back! No more going through life in linguistic lockstep! Test your vocabulary now with our quiz, and if your word choices aren't all that varied, we hope you'll learn a few colorful terms you can carry into your everyday life. 

Which of these would you "renege" on?

If you go back on a promise or a treaty, you've "reneged" on it. Did you notice the similarity to "renegade"? That's not coincidental. "Renegare" means "to deny" in Latin, giving us both words.

An "intuitive" person is good at what?

"Intuition" is something like a guess or a hunch; "intuitive" is the noun form. It has such a sage, canny sound that Silicon Valley borrowed the verb "intuit" for a line of accounting software.

Something "predestinate" is ... ?

You might be more familiar with this one in its noun form, "predestination." Or not — we suppose that one's not terribly common, either. But the root word "destiny" is certainly recognizable, and "predestinate" is something that's fated to happen.

If a medical problem is "neurological," what part of the body is malfunctioning?

"Neurology" is the medical field dealing with the brain and the nerves. Nerve cells are called "neurons," and the chemistry of the brain is referred to as "neurochemistry."

You've been nominated to your company's "ethics" committee! What will you be overseeing?

In philosophy, "ethics" is the branch dealing with intrinsic right and wrong, to the extent that those things can be determined. More practically, "ethics" means the rules you live by, sometimes as an individual and sometimes as a group.

Something that is "auxiliary" is which of these?

You're probably familiar with the abbreviation "Aux" over those little input holes on electronics. They're for auxiliary cables or devices, the ones that you use less often. Another common use of this term was "Ladies' Auxiliary" for a women's group that supported an organization that was, by default, made up of men. With increasing integration, this term has fallen out of favor.

Which of these has a "habitat"?

In biology, "habitat" refers to an animal's preferred surroundings, when conditions are suited for it. This word has been adopted by architecture buffs and designers, who sometimes refer to creating an ideal "habitat" for human beings.

An "ambidextrous" person uses what equally well?

The root of this word is the Latin "dextra," meaning "right hand." Because more than 75 percent of the human population is right-handed, the Romans associated the right hand with skill and adeptness. But if you use both ("ambos") hand equally well, it's as if you have a "right hand" on both sides.

If something is "compulsory," what is it?

The root of "compulsory" is "compel," which might be a more familiar word. In the synonym "mandatory," you'll notice the syllable "mand-", which is related to "mandate" and "command." Either word you choose, it's an order!

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

To be "bereaved" is to have recently suffered the loss of someone close to you. It's almost always used in this capacity: so far, we haven't adapted it to mean the grief stemming from a divorce, nor the loss of a house due to foreclosure.

Which of these is likely to be "florid"?

Unsurprisingly, this word is related to "flower." Novice public speakers are sometimes guilty of being florid in an attempt to move the audience, meaning they use excessively fancy speech. Alternate meanings of "florid" are "ruddy, reddish" or "full-blown" (as with a disease).

Is "extrinsic" even a word?

This is a case of a pair of related words becoming really unbalanced in terms of use (see also "ruth" and "ruthless"). "Intrinsic" means "by nature, in essence" and is frequently heard. "Extrinsic" refers to a quality that is added on or not inherent. For example, a horse is intrinsically an animal or an herbivore; extrinsically, it's a form of transportation.

If a person cares about "aesthetics," what is he or she interested in?

This is why a beautician is also called an "aesthetician." In general, an "aesthete" is someone who cares about appearance and artistic merit, which, carried too far, can be a negative. For example,consider that person who just had to have a vintage Mini Cooper instead of a Subaru, and therefore is always late because of mechanical trouble.

If you "affiliate" with someone, what do you do with them?

You might be familiar with the noun "affiliate" for a local TV station that carries national-network programming: "The local NBC affiliate." This word looks the same as a noun and a verb; the adjective form is "affiliated."

If you're "ambulatory," what can be said of you?

This term often comes up in medical settings, so there's a nice symmetry with the related word "ambulance." The ambulance takes you to the hospital, where the goal is to get you ambulatory again as soon as possible.

"Metaphysics" is the study of which of these?

This highfalutin' field got its name in a very simple way: In a compilation, an editor put Aristotle's writings on the subject right after his writings on physics, therefore, "meta physics." The actual subject of metaphysics isn't easily explained, or understood, like the related field of "quantum physics."

If you've said, "I'm reticent to get involved," have you used this word correctly?

The Word Police will tell you that "reticent" means "shy, reserved" and "reluctant" means unwilling. This is true, but because of the similarity in form, it was probably inevitable that the first word would come to stand in for the second. Merriam-Webster defends this use, pointing out that "reticent" has been used in this way since the mid-19th century.

What does an "entomologist" study?

Sorry if you were fooled by "the roots of words." That's "etymology," and we're doing a lot of that in this quiz! But "entomology" is the study of insects. Don't include spiders or ticks, though: That's "arachnology."

True or false: The words "incarnate," "carnation" and "carne asada" are all related.

The root is the Latin word "caro," meaning "flesh." So in Spanish, "carne" is meat (and "asada" means grilled or broiled). An "incarnation" is an appearance in the flesh, like a god becoming an avatar. And carnations are believed to get their name from their red or pink, flesh-like, colors.

Other than being a book of the Bible, a "genesis" refers to what?

We suppose a virgin birth is a kind of beginning, but that definition is a little too narrow for our purposes. A "genesis" is a beginning. It was adapted to "Genisys" for one of the "Terminator" movies, which retold the beginning of the series (and completely made a hash of it, according to some fans).

"Cerulean" is a shade of which color?

In the original Latin, "ceruleanus" was a chameleon color that could be described as blue, green or gray, or having elements of all three. (Think of the ocean under different light conditions). In English, the definition has settled on "blue."

If something is "ferrous," it's composed of, or contains, which metal?

"Ferrous" means "related to or containing iron." Some colorful writers refer to blood as having a "ferrous" taste, but we suspect they are back-engineering from knowing that blood contains iron, more than a familiarity with the taste of iron!

Simply put, "prestidigitation" is what?

This word is a simple mashup of the early French "presti" for "quick" and Latin "digitus" for "finger." So it refers mainly to magic that relies on sleight of hand — not, for example, mentalist acts. Sidebar: If your tax preparer's work resembles sleight of hand, it might be time to look for someone new.

If you "commend" an action, what have you said about it?

The noun form is "commendation," which means a statement of approval. It's close to "praise," but the two can't generically replace each other, as a "commendation" is often more formal or official.

Something "titanic" is ...

This word is forever linked to the doomed ship. However, it takes its name from the "titans," a race of giants in Greek mythology, and generally refers to something that is very large.

What part of speech is "starboard"?

This term is borrowed from the nautical world. "Port" is left and "starboard" is right. You won't need these very often unless you go into the Navy, but they can be fun to use in an ironic sense. Next time you're on a road trip, point out an interesting geographic feature "off to starboard" to your companions.

What's the best synonym for "discord"?

Yes, before it was a social media platform, "discord" meant "disagreement" and "conflict." The antonym is "accord," an old-fashioned word for "agreement" you can find in the Bible: "Now all the believers were in one accord." (Acts 2:1)

Which of these is a word for "very casual"?

So is there an antonym, spelled "chalant"? Not so. This word comes from the Latin "non" and "chalare" (the latter meaning, "to be warm.") While that leaves the door open for a word like "chalant" to mean "concerned or invested," the English language just didn't go in that direction.

Something that is "indispensable" can't be ...

If you're "indispensable," you're the go-to guy or gal at work or elsewhere. Good for you! However, heed writer Elbert Hubbard's warning: "The graveyards are full of indispensable men."

If a product is "embargoed," what has happened to it?

This is a timely word when threats of tariffs and trade wars are in the news every day! However, our favorite use of this word is a headline from The Onion: "Area man puts embargo on Pier 1 crap."

Which of these is the best synonym for "questionable"?

If something is "questionable," you're right to doubt whether it is true, accurate, or a good idea. This term used to mean "leaving (someone or something) open to lawsuits," but that one has fallen out of use. (Thanks to Merriam-Webster's site for this clarification; the M-W site is highly recommended for all sorts of inquiries about language!)

If you change your mind regularly, friends might call you what?

Somebody "fickle" can't be counted on; they don't stand firm in the face of changing circumstances. A sidenote about "disinclined": You can't be "disinclined" in general. This word requires an infinitive verb — you're "disinclined to" do something.

If a person "relinquishes" something to you, what have they done with it?

To "relinquish" something is to surrender it. This is another word with a false prefix: Despite the first syllable being "re-", there is no verb "linquish," and to "relinquish" does not mean giving it up a second time.

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

"Dissuade" does have a kind of whispery, soft sound ... but it doesn't have anything to do with volume. It's the opposite of "persuade," and can be done quietly or in a very loud voice.

Which of these is often confused with a metaphor?

People like the word "metaphor," and often use it when they mean "simile." The key is, a simile used a helper word such as "like" or "as": "The wine flowed like water." A metaphor simply says that one thing is another: "Wine is water around here."

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