GRE Vocab and the Seven Deadly Sins: Part VII – Pride

An early sixteenth century Dutch depiction of the seven deadly sins, by a follower of Heironymus Bosch.

Finally, we come to the end of our series with the last and deadliest of the seven deadly sins: pride. While in English the word “pride” can often have a positive connotation, as in “the parents are proud of their child,” this kind of pride is something else altogether. In Latin, this sin is referred to as superbia, which perhaps gives a clearer indication of its nature than does the English equivalent. Pride is defined by the Catholic church as the belief that one is innately superior to others, especially in the sense that the sinner feels that he or she does not have to act with regard to the well-being of others because he or she is “better” than they are. Pride is thus a sin of selfishness and arrogance that leads one to feel that one is above the rules and that other people don’t matter. You begin to see why this is the worst one. According to Catholic theology, pride is the worst sin of all because it is the source of the other sins. It was, after all, pride that caused the angel Lucifer to rebel against God and become Satan, the Devil himself.

There are many excellent potential GRE vocab words that have to do with the sin of pride, including superbity, vainglory, hubris, haughtiness, hauteur, superciliousness, amour-propre, conceitedness, narcissism, and condescension.

fall of satan dore

Gustave Doré’s illustration for Milton’s Paradise Lost, depicting Lucifer being cast out of heaven for his pride.

Perhaps a more exact translation of the Latin superbia would be superbity, which is clearly derived from the Latin original. Superbity, unlike the word superb, does not have a good connotation; it refers to arrogance or unreasonable and inordinate self-esteem. Another old word that may serve as a better translation of superbia is vainglory, which indeed was the name of this sin long ago. It is, of course, a compound word formed from “vain” and “glory.” While the word “vain” means self-absorbed today, before the 14th century it meant futile or useless, as in “his efforts were all in vain.” Thus, ‘vain glory’ was the pursuit of earthly glory that was ultimately all in vain, since after death all that mattered was the virtuousness of one’s soul. Today, it refers to excessive elation or pride over one’s own achievements or abilities.

An even older word referring to this sin is the Ancient Greek derived hubris, which refers to excessive pride or self-confidence or arrogance. In ancient Greece, it had multiple meanings: it could refer to breaking or challenging the gods or their laws, but it could also refer to sadistic (and often sexual) crimes in which the perpetrator (usually someone rich and powerful) sought to shame the victim for no reason but the twisted pleasure of doing so. Aristotle (who made it his goal to categorize and describe everything) explained the appeal of this kind of crime by saying that the men who perpetrate it feel that by shaming others they increase their own superiority. The Greeks considered hubris to be among the worst of crimes, and it could be punishable by death. Today, this culturally specific definition of hubris has faded, and today it is more often used to mean “blinding pride,” or pride that causes one to loose touch with reality. This usually implies disaster is soon to follow.

tower of babel

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5-8) has long been considered a symbol of the sin of pride.

Haughtiness and hauteur both come from the French word haut, which simply means “high,” and derives from the Latin altus, which is the root of words like “altitude.” As you might have guessed from the “gh,” the word haughty (haughtiness is the quality of being haughty) has been in the English language longer. It first acquired its modern spelling in 1530, but before that it existed as the more French looking haute, which most likely entered English sometime after the Norman conquest during the Norman or Plantagenet dynasties (the members of which spoke French, not English). Although it originally meant lofty or noble, by 1430 it had taken on the meaning of disdainfully proud, snobbish, or scornfully arrogant. The word hauteur entered English much more recently in 1628, and refers to a haughty manner or spirit, or just simply arrogance. So, a haughty person would possess a certain hauteur.

Superciliousness is the quality of being supercilious, or haughtily disdainful or contemptuous. For instance, the word supercilious is often used to describe a person or facial expression, as in, say, a “supercilious sneer.” It first entered the English language in 1529 from the synonymous Latin word superciliosus, which was in turn derived from the Latin word supercilium, which literally meant “eyebrow” (super – above, cilium – eyelid). You see, in ancient Rome, if you wanted to make an arrogant facial expression, it usually involved raising one’s eyebrows. Today, supercilious can apply to any stuck-up facial expression, of course.

Amour-propre is a French term that is often used in English. Literally, it means “proper love,” but a more meaningful translation would be “self-esteem” or “self-respect.” Although it generally has a good connotation, it is often used as a sarcastic euphemism for vanity or pride, since self-esteem is after all a form of pride. For example: “At the banquet, the ambassador refused to be seated so far away from the president, because such an arrangement would not only insult his country, but would also wound his amour-propre.” This implies that all the ambassador really cares about is his own self-importance.

The word conceitedness refers to the quality of being conceited, or having an excessively favorable opinion of one’s abilities, appearance, etc. Long ago, however, it actually meant intelligent or clever. It comes from the word conceit, which is in turn related to the words conceive and conception, much in the way that deceit, deceive,  deception, and receipt, receive, and reception are related. All of these words derive from the Latin verb capere, which means “to take”; thus, receive meant “take again” or “take back,” deceive meant “take away,” and conceive meant “take with” before they acquired their more familiar meanings. Originally, in the 1400s, a conceit was the same as a concept: an idea or product of the mind. Over time, it came to mean an especially clever idea; in literature, for example, Petrarchan and Metaphysical conceits are elaborate (and often far-fetched) kinds of metaphors.

A painting of Narcissus, attributed to Caravaggio.

The word narcissism comes from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, the Thespian hunter who was so good looking he fell in love with his own reflection. It refers to extreme self-love, vanity, and self-absorption.

The verb condescend means to look down on someone as if you were higher than them. It comes from the Latin condescendere and first entered English in the 1300s. Originally, it meant to yield to someone else’s wishes, or to lower yourself before someone else, but this meaning was switched in the 1610s, when it came to mean lowering yourself by addressing people below you in rank. Basically, it went from actual humility to false humility.

Speaking of which, in Catholic theology, humility, or humilitas in Latin, is the heavenly virtue meant to serve as a healing antidote for the poison of pride. Having humility doesn’t mean having a low self-esteem, but rather focusing on valuing and respecting others before oneself. Having humility means acknowledging one’s own limitations and imperfections, and thus not judging others for theirs. Potential GRE words that have to do with humility might include demure, obsequious, and meek.

A painting by James Tissot of Jesus delivering the sermon of the beatitudes.

Demure means characterized by shyness and modesty. It entered English in the late 1300s, but its etymology is somewhat cloudy. Some trace its meaning back to the Latin maturus, which means mature or serious, but other etymologists speculate that it may have been influenced by the similar sounding verb “demur,” which is derived from the Latin demorari,  which means to pause or delay.

The word obsequious, on the other hand, has a more negative connotation; it means characterized by or showing servile complaisance or deference; fawning. Originally, before the 1590s, it did not have a negative connotation; it just meant “prompt to serve.” It comes from the Latin ob- (a prefix meaning after) and sequi (meaning to follow), so it meant to follow after someone. Meek has a more positive connotation: it means humbly patient or docile, and is derived from the Old Norse mjukr, which means soft, pliant, or gentle. You may recognize it from the beatitudes, a list of blessed groups of people found in the Gospel of Matthew, which includes the verse:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

And that’s it for the seven deadly sins! Hope you enjoyed this series, and remember, if you ever need extra help preparing for the GRE or any other standardized test, you can study with experts like me at Test Masters. Don’t sin too much, and come back soon!


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