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2013-03-29 14:32:42

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  1. Mesmerize
    Today, we have the word mesmerize, which doesn’t necessarily mean to hypnotize (though it could),but is used figuratively and means to hold spellbound.

    Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician prominent the turn of the 19th century, was renowned forhypnotizing people. His method included kneeling near a patient, touching his/her knees and lookinginto the person’s eyes (I’m curious if he ever proposed to one of his clients).
  2. Gerrymander
    Today the use of gerrymander hasn’t changed too much, and refers to the manipulation of boundaries to favor a certain group.

    Elbridge Gerry was the vice president of James Madison, the 4th president of the United States. Elbridgehad an interesting idea. To get elected a president had to win a certain number of districts. So Elbridgecame up with the following plan: if he partitioned a city in a certain way he could ensure that thepresident would win the majority of the votes from that district. The end result was a city that was split up into the oddest arrangement of districts. And can you guesswhat a map of the city, gerrymandered, looked like? Yep, a salamander.
  3. Hector
    If you remember reading Homer’s Iliad, you may remember Hector, a muscular, daunting force (some ofyou may more vividly recall Eric Bana from the movie Troy). As people were intimidated around Hector,it makes sense that the word ‘hector’ means to bully or intimidate.
  4. Pollyannaish
    Like Hector, Pollyannaish comes from fiction. However, in this case we are dealing with a relativelyrecent work, that of Eleanor Porter who came up with a character named Pollyanna. Pollyanna wasextremely optimistic and so it is no surprise that Pollyannaish means extremely optimistic.
  5. Chauvinist
    Well, Nicolas Chauvin, a one-time recruit in Napoleon’s army, used to go about town, thumping hischest about how great France was. In its modern day incantation, chauvinism can also mean anyone who thinks that their group is better than anybody else’s group. You can have male chauvinists,political party chauvinists, and even female chauvinists.
  6. Pyrrhic
    achieved at excessive cost <a Pyrrhic victory>; also : costly to the point of negating or outweighing expected benefits 

    King Pyrrhus had the unfortunate luck of going up against the Romans. Some would say that he was actually lucky in that he actually defeated the Romans in the Battle of Asculum. Pyrrhic was perhaps more ambivalent, quipping, “One more such victory will undo me.”
  7. Kafkaesque
    Today, we have the word Kafkaesque, that refers to the absurdity we have to deal with living in aworld of faceless bureaucracies

    By day, Franz Kafka filed papers at an insurance office, and by night churned out dark novels, whichsuggested that the quotidian world of the office was actually far more sinister. Mainly, his novels wereknown for the absurd predicaments of their main characters (who often went by nothing more than asingle initial).
  8. Quixotic
    As a word that means somebody who mistakes windmills for dragons would have a severely limited application, quixotic has taken the broader meaning of someone who is wildly idealistic

    Don Quixote is perhaps one of the most well-known characters in all of literature. I suppose there issomething heartbreaking yet comical at a man past his prime who believes he is on some great missionto save the world. In fact, Don Quixote was so far off his rocker that he thought windmills were dragons.
  9. Maudlin
    Mary Magdalene was the most important female disciple of Jesus. After Jesus had been crucified, she wept at his tomb.

    From this outward out pouring of emotion, we today have the word maudlin. Whereas Mary’s weeping was noble, maudlin has taken on a negative connotation. A person who is maudlin cries in public for no good reason, and is often times used to describe one who’s tried to finish a jeroboam alone, and now must share with the stranger sitting next to them all of his deepest feelings.
  10. Panglossian
    Interestingly, there is another eponym for literature that has a very similar meaning: Panglossian.Derived from Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide, Panglossian carries a negative connotation, implying blind optimism.

    Despite the fact that his country had been marred by a protracted civil war, Victor remained ever Panglossian, claiming that his homeland was living through a Golden Age.
  11. Malapropism
    Ms. Malaprop was a character in a play The Rivals by the largely forgotten George Sheridan. She was known for mixing up similar sounding words, usually to comic effect. Indeed, she would utter the words with complete aplomb that those listening were unsure if she’d even mixed up words in the first place.Her favorite Spanish dance was the flamingo (note: the dance in question is the flamenco; a flamingo isa salmon-colored bird known both for its elegance and tackiness).

    GRE malapropisms aren’t quite so silly as Ms. Malaprop mixing up a bird and a Spanish dance, but I’ll do my best. See if you can spot the GRE malapropisms below.
  12. Quisling

    We’ve all heard of the Nazis. Some of you may have even heard of the Vichy government, which was apuppet regime set up by the Nazis in France during WWII. Few of us, however, know that Germany alsotried to turn Norway into a puppet regime. In order for Germany to take over Norway, it needed aninside man, a Norwegian who would sell his country out for the Nazis.

    This man was Viktor Quisling. For arrant perfidy, he has been awarded the eponym quisling, whichmeans traitor.
  13. Byzantine
    The modern usage of byzantine refers not to architecture per se, but to anything that is extremely intricate and complex. It actually carries a negative connotation.