Do You Have an Ivy League Vocabulary?


By: Elisabeth Henderson

7 Min Quiz

Image: Hill Street Studios / DigitalVision / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Many think that people use big vocabulary words just to show off their pretentious knowledge. While that may be true in many cases, it's equally true that so-called "big" words have very specific purposes, and using these words allows speakers to communicate in more nuanced ways. 

Take the word "big," for example. If someone accuses you of using a "big" word, they don't tell you specifically what their complaint is with the word. "Bigger," more nuanced words could allow them to communicate that they took issue with the word being grandiose, or putting on a sense of being grand. They could also let you know that they didn't agree with your prestigious word choice given the vulgar context. 

Ivy League students and alumni, at their best, don't use elevated vocabulary merely to show off their intellect and university pedigree. They know that word choice is nothing but critical thinking — trying to say exactly what you mean, which requires you to know exactly what you think and not just slide by with generalities. 

Words become less useful as they are less used because as fewer people understand their meaning, they fail to communicate that meaning effectively. So, learning and using advanced vocabulary is truly a work of intellectual conservation. Scroll on to find out if you’re in on the conversation, or if it all sounds like obfuscation. 

The professor set the papers on the desk and declared we were all inept. What did he mean?

Being called inept is never a good thing. It generally means that you do not have the skills to do the thing you are in fact doing. If you are inept, you need to be retrained or just get a different job. In this case, though, the person calling the students inept is the one who should be teaching them the skills. So, doesn't that mean he is inept?


If your friend tells you to please excuse her behavior last weekend because it was an aberration, what does she mean?

Your friend was communicating to you that her behavior was out of the ordinary. But you may want to keep an eye on her and try to establish for yourself what her ordinary behavior looks like before you take it as an aberration.


The toddler shocked her mother by __________ to her demands rather than putting up a fight.

If a toddler acquiesces to a parent's demands, you can be pretty sure that there is a treat involved. Toddlers don't easily relent in their desires without some external motivation. Acquiescence denotes a tacit approval, rather than the full approval of consent.


One of my fellow students told me they felt that the teacher lacked a solid pedagogy. What did she mean?

While a teacher may indeed be lacking a pedicure, the word pedagogy refers to the method or philosophy of teaching the teacher employs. In general, it's rare for students to complain about a teacher's pedagogy or lack thereof, but that may well be different in Ivy League schools.


The doctor invited me to peruse the latest research on vaccinations. What do they want me to do?

It sounds like the doctor is merely inviting you to read over the current research carefully. While peruse sometimes is used to mean casual reading, it actually refers to scrutinizing a text thoroughly.


How might you convey that the fee will be inconsequential?

When someone says there is a nominal fee, the literal meaning is that it will be inconsequential, or in name only. But it’s always a good idea to check the fine print ... How consequential a fee is can be entirely relative.


If your date informs you that she has a predilection for fish tacos, what should you infer?

The word predilection comes from the Latin roots "prae" — in advance — and "diligere" — to select — so the word means "to select in advance." Thus, if you're going to a place that offers fish tacos, you can just know in advance that's what she's going to select. That probably doesn't mean you should just order them for her, though.


The professor stopped me and said we would stick to only the salient points. What was wrong with my contribution?

The salient points of an article would be the most important, most noticeable and memorable points. So, if a professor were to tell you that your point was not salient, they would likely be trying to gently tell you that your comment was off topic.


My friend told me she was looking for an article to buttress her argument. What does she mean?

Buttress, in this sense, means a line of defense or support. The word comes from a specific architectural meaning, though. A buttress is a wall built to hold up the structure of another building.


How might you say that someone was a perfect, shining example of some quality?

The quintessential example is the perfect example of whatever the quality is. Like, the quintessential granola-type eats granola for breakfast with a kale smoothie and wears patchouli instead of deodorant. The word comes from the Latin for the fifth essence, which, in Medieval thinking, was the stuff the heavens were made of.


When your new boyfriend tells you that he prefers to keep the relationship furtive, what do you understand him to mean?

If your boyfriend wants to have a furtive relationship, then chances are he has something else furtive going on behind your back. Why else would he not want anyone to know? Furtive means secretive, but it also implies hiding intentions as well.


He asked me to go on an equine adventure for a date ... Should I say yes?

An equine adventure would involve horses, presumably a horseback ride — unless you're in Kentucky, where you may need to get a funny hat and dress up for the Derby. Either one has the potential for a good date, but it depends on your preferences.


If your supervisor tells you privately that your comment in the meeting was incisive, what should you take her to mean?

The word incisive may sound negative, but it means sharp and to the point. If a supervisor pulls you aside to discuss your incisive comment, she's most likely showing you that your words cut to the heart of the conversation.


His friend said he made a prudent decision. Should he be offended?

Though it may sound like just another way to say someone's a prude, the word prudent means being wise and considering the consequences of actions.


The parent warned the toddler not to exacerbate the situation. What are they expecting the toddler to understand?

Telling a toddler that they should not exacerbate the situation expects them to understand that continuing in their behavior will make a bad situation worse. This is a pretty big ask for a toddler. But their exacerbating behavior can be very exasperating sometimes, which makes it understandable why someone may use words way beyond the cognitive abilities of their audience.


She told me that the movie was not worth seeing because it was an adulterated version of the book. Why isn't it worth my time?

Adulterated does not actually mean adult rated, and it certainly doesn't mean animated. Adulterating something means adding something that takes away from the purity of the original or otherwise ruining it. It's more common to see something labeled "unadulterated" than "adulterated," since you don't want a product label to say "ruined."


My father warned me to be ______ when walking at night.

Out of the possibilities, circumspection seems the most useful lesson for walking at night. To be circumspect is to look around, to be cautious and to consider all the possible options. The act of caution and actual looking around go hand in hand when walking at night.


The teacher said the final exam would be cumulative. What does that mean?

Cumulative exams require students to go back to the dawn of time (or the beginning of the semester or term) and try to remember what they learned. The word cumulative contains the meaning not just of adding one thing to another, but of knowledge accumulating, like a snowball growing larger as it rolls downhill.


I just wanted to tell them that gender was not a _______ issue, that it was more fluid than that, but I couldn't think of the word.

A binary is something that can be seen as black and white or either/or. It’s a choice with two options, and the options are opposed to one another. Gender, many argue, should be seen as non-binary, meaning there is a range of possibilities beyond the binary of male and female.


How do indolent students fare in college?

The world indolent, meaning lazy or slothful, comes from the Latin "in" (or "not") and "dolere" (or "give pain"). So, the original word signified something that did not give pain. Around the 17th century, the word took on the meaning of laziness. It seems that those 17th-century folk took seriously the idea of no pain no gain, or the earlier version, no pain or you're a lazy bum.


Just when I thought the speech was over, the speaker acknowledged that the preamble had concluded. How much longer will the speech go?

The preamble to a speech is just a warm-up for the real thing. If you're already getting sleepy, you may need to excuse yourself. The preamble to the Constitution of the United States, beginning "We the people," is one of the more famous preambles.


What's a euphemism for the kid who won't stop talking in class?

A vociferous student talks loudly and calls a lot of attention to themselves, while a raucous student would be more rowdy and disruptive. Vociferous is not necessarily a negative term, so it could be used euphemistically to describe the loud student.


She rejected my point of view because it was arcane. What was her criticism?

If you're accused of being arcane, you may be spending too much time with mystical and esoteric texts. The word arcane comes from the Latin for "chest." So something arcane is shut up in a chest, making it inaccessible to most people.


She claimed that being a parent was ________ to being a pet owner, but I vehemently argued they are nothing alike.

Two things are analogous when they can be compared. Usually, seeing an analogy between two things illuminates something about the items being compared. Certainly, raising children and raising pets have their similarities, but some may argue that the differences are so far-reaching as to make them weak analogies for each other.


If you've completed this quiz with 100% accuracy, it's safe to say you'd be at home ___________ in an Ivy League school.

To matriculate means to become enrolled as a student. The word arises from the Latin "matrix," which, before it was a Keanu Reeves movie, meant "breeding female." If you can understand how that's analogous for your life, you're definitely Ivy League material. Congratulations!


What does it mean if someone is described as infamous?

Infamous is one of those words that's confusing because it sounds like a word with a different meaning. Being infamous doesn't mean you’re not famous or that you're really famous. Rather, it means that you're famous for your bad reputation, and that's not really the fame most people are looking for.


Maxine went on a diatribe. Where did she go?

Contrary to the way it’s often used in a sentence, a diatribe is not a mode of transportation. It's a harsh and bitter verbal attack, either in writing or spoken aloud. The word comes from the Greek "dia," or "through," and "tribein," or "rub." It's literally rubbing it in.


She reached the _______ of the semester when she hadn't slept for three days and was surviving on instant noodles and diet soda.

Surviving on diet soda and instant noodles without sleep represents the low point, or nadir, of a semester. If you guessed peak, we may just have to agree to disagree. The word has Arabic roots and literally means "the opposite of the zenith."


How would you describe a professor who is difficult to please?

If you have a meticulous professor, you may have a hard time pleasing them with shoddy, rushed work. Meticulous, in addition to meaning difficult to please, also refers to extreme attention to detail. What did you think you were going to get in an Ivy League school?


The teacher requested that we not use the vernacular in written work. What should we avoid in our papers?

The vernacular is the everyday speech of a group of people and designates the speech of a particular region explicitly. Using the vernacular may not be appropriate for academic writing, but it would be the best choice for trying to communicate with a group of peers about where to eat.


Which word would you use to convey that a person is likable and warm?

The word amiable means that a person is likable and warm. An amiable waiter would visit with your table for a minute and set you at ease with their social, laid-back manner, which is much preferred to the impudent waiter who may intentionally give you the wrong food and ignore you on purpose when you don't have silverware.


If a teacher asks you to extrapolate information from an article, what are they asking you to do?

When you extrapolate something, you extend the existing information or method to see how it applies elsewhere. In mathematics, this can mean continuing a graph based on the known patterns, even when you do not have the known quantities.


The professor called him to office hours to ask him not to be so obsequious. What should he stop doing?

Obsequious behavior is obedience to the point of being servile or infantile. While professors surely appreciate compliance in the classroom, they generally do not want students to fawn and brown nose.


If someone is disingenuous, how should you take their word?

The word disingenuous describes someone who is insincere or is not forthright about what they know. Being disingenuous is subtly different from outright lying about something; it's more cagey, like acting like you didn't know someone lost their phone, when, really, you saw someone take it.


Your English teacher assigned you to repudiate the argument in a critical essay. What's the goal of the assignment?

Repudiate can mean to reject, deny or to refuse to associate with, but in this context, the teacher most likely means that they want you to refute the critical essay's claims by proving why they are false. The word actually comes from a Latin root meaning “divorce.”


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