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Why am I thinking about an old spiritual guru, sitting on top of a mountain, eating steaks? It’s because I’m trying to remember the word rarefied. Sure, there are more mundane ways to remember this word, but I have my reasons. Namely, I’m trying to tie several meanings of “rarefied” into a single mnemonic sentence.
“Rarefy” is a word that comes up in the first week of our GRE course. When students go to make their first batch of flash cards, they encounter a few words—like rarefied—that have multiple definitions. This one in particular encompasses about 5 distinct meanings. “Rarefied” can refer to “thin” or it can refer to “exclusive.” To rarefy can mean “to purify,” “to make less dense,” or “spiritually refine.” It’s a peculiar word that many reach their adult life without ever learning. If you encounter it for the first time on a vocabulary list, it also bombards you with several hazily-connected definitions all at once.
Do You Need to Know All the Definitions?
In the interest of saving time in the quest to master 1,000 vocabulary words, many students elect to choose one definition at the expense of the others. They rarefy the list of definitions a little, if you know what I mean. Surely, it’s a good idea to snip off the extraneous definitions and focus only on the most common meaning, right?
This even goes for words you think you know well. I thought I knew the meaning of the word “bizarre.” I’d always thought it meant “a little quirky.” In my own GRE study, though, I missed a Sentence Equivalence question because of this word. I failed to pair “bizarre” with “grotesque.” Apparently, it had a second shade of meaning I’d never even considered.
The GRE is full of questions and multi-meaning sentences that test subtle or secondary meanings. You’ve heard of “meeting” someone, but have you heard of “meet” behavior? You’ve heard of “piquing someone’s interest,” but have you heard of “feeling piqued at someone?” These are words with multiple definitions—and those definitions have been tested on past exams.
Memorizing multiple definitions has its obvious advantages:
- You’re more likely to be able to pair your vocabulary word in Sentence Equivalence.
- You’re more likely to know the definition relevant to the blank you’re filling in.
3. Memorizing multiple definitions is easier than memorizing any single one.
I’m aware that this is a strange claim, so allow me to clarify. Your memory works through networks. You can think of sentences, mnemonics, quizzing apps, doodles, and other vocabulary memorization techniques as little points that hook a word into your memory. If it’s only hooked in at a single location, it’s much more difficult for your frantic little neurons to call it to mind at the drop of a hat. The more “hooks” the vocabulary word has, though, the more likely it is to be conjured from the depths of your memory when you need it most. For this reason, it can actually be easier to memorize all of the definitions of a word like “rarefy” than to memorize only a single one.
A Few Examples of Multi-Meaning Sentences
For familiar words, place emphasis on meanings you don’t know, but tie those meanings into what you do know. This is particularly important if the meanings are obvious and easy. Take “precipitate,” for example. You may know that this word refers to wet stuff falling out of the sky—snow, rain, and other such meteorological phenomena. Maybe you have even heard it used in chemistry class to refer to making solids come out of solutions. But “precipitate” can also mean “to cause” or “to hurl.” It can even be used as an adjective: a “precipitate action” is one done in a “hasty” or “reckless” way. These definitions would be very tough to memorize if you came up with distinct sentences to practice each one:
- “The chemist precipitated an item out of the solution.”
- “The rain precipitated from the sky.”
- “I made a precipitate dash for the train when I was running late to work.”
- “The glass precipitated down upon the floor.”
Because none of these has any connection to rain, each one has very little to hook it into your existing memory.
Instead, take the meaning you do know—rain—and tie it to the meanings you don’t.
a. Deep in her laboratory, the chemist was on the verge of precipitating the next great breakthrough in modern science while precipitation roared down from the thunderstorm outside, but as she made a precipitate rush across the street to tell her colleagues, she slipped on a puddle and her vials were precipitated upon the ground in a pile of shattered glass.
Because rain features prominently in the story you came up with, you’re likely to picture a whole rainy scene when you see this word in the future. It also contains elements of rushing, causing, and falling. The chemistry theme may also help you link these meanings to more prior knowledge about “precipitate.” With all of these meanings tied together, each individual meaning is a little easier to remember.
Sometimes the sentences you concoct out of multiple definitions will be quite strange to read. That’s actually a good thing. If they come together into a weird scene, you’re more likely to remember it. Here’s a multi-meaning sentence I came up with for “rarefied”:
b. On top of a mountain, where the rarefied air was hard to breathe, a spiritual guru rarefied himself into a state of enlightenment as he ate rare steaks and looked down with scorn on the masses of people below.
If you look carefully, we’ve hit on three meanings of rarefy in one dense and peculiar image. Our guru is becoming “spiritually purified” while breathing “thin” air and looking down on others in an “exclusive” manner. Why is he eating a rare steak? Well, that just seemed like an exclusive thing to do on a mountaintop. And it’s weird. Weird = memorable.
Try a Few Yourself
Hopefully multi-meaning sentences will help you cut some definition lists down to size. If you’re interested in making your own, here are a few good candidate words with some hints to get you started:
Sanction – A politician sanctioning the use of sanctions
Lucid – Looking through lucid glass on a professor giving a lucid explanation
Tortuous – A person travelling down a tortuous path thinking of tortuous ideas
Slight – There’s a slight chance that a slight person might feel slighted if you refer to them as “skinny”
Meet – Use meet behavior when you meet people
Good luck with the vocabulary memorization—and more importantly, have fun! 📝
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Tom Anderson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has a B.A. in English and a master’s degree in education. Tom has long possessed an understanding of the power of standardized tests in propelling one’s education and career, and he hopes he can help his students see through the intimidating veneer of the GRE. Check out Tom’s upcoming GRE courses here.