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"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 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 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 extemporaneous.
"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 personalities.
As the 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, and 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'être 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 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, you'll find Lynell's list at www.wilbers.com.