"We need to plan carefully," said the vice president at a staff meeting.
"We can’t do this extemporaneously."
A young woman leaned toward
her older colleague.
"What does that mean?" she
The older woman was shocked.
extemporaneously was a common word.
"It means ‘off the cuff,’" she
explained. "The VP doesn’t want us to wing it."
The young woman mouthed the
words "thank you."
The older woman isn’t really
old. She’s mature and wise, a charming colleague and friend. She’s also
smart, as in Mensa smart. We’ll call her Lynell.
Troubled by her co-worker’s
limited vocabulary, Lynell decided to draw attention to vocabulary. Using
white plastic letters on the office message board, she spelled the word
"Cool," said her colleague
when she noticed.
"I like that," said the vice
president. "Do a new word every day."
Even for someone with an
expansive vocabulary, coming up with an interesting and useful word every
day requires some thought. Lynell began compiling a list. In the process,
she found herself attending carefully to words used in conversation, the
media, and her daily reading. As she gathered words for the benefit of her
colleagues, of course, she also created precisely the right mind-set for
her own edification: She was paying close attention to language and the
way we use words to express our thoughts, feelings, goals, concerns, and
As the days and weeks and
months have gone by, Lynell has continued posting a new word every
morning. The office message board is now electronic, but it still features
Lynell’s word of the day. She has posted more than 350, and she has
another 400 ready to go. She suspects that some of her colleagues pay
closer attention than others, some may not even notice, but she likes
working in an environment that values education, professional development,
and self-improvement. And of course, she loves words.
She also loves grammar. She
once corrected me for saying, "I’d better lay low."
"Steve," she said. "I’m
surprised at you! It’s ‘I’d better lie low.’"
When I asked her what advice
she would offer people who want to establish a workplace word of the day,
Make it fun.
Don’t make the words too
Include some common foreign
words such as raison d’etre from French or schadenfreude
from German. (In reference to the latter, she told me, "I saw it being
used in magazines and newspapers, so I knew it was a word people should
Illustrate the word in a
phrase or sentence. (When a coworker questioned her about obstreperous,
Lynell used it in a sentence describing "an obstreperous child.")
Keep doing it even if no one
seems to be paying attention.
Are you the one to get things
started in your office? If language is in your bailiwick and you’d like to
help your colleagues burnish their communication skills without being
bilious, bombastic, or callow, why not give it a try?
For starters, see
Lynell’s word list.