to plan carefully," said the vice president at a staff meeting. "We can’t
do this extemporaneously."
woman leaned toward her older colleague.
"What does that mean?" she whispered.
The older woman was shocked. For her,
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
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
"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, she said:
Make it fun.
Don’t make the words too esoteric.
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 know.")
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
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