Saturday, July 16, 2011

In a Word

When I was seven years old, I was tearing around the neighborhood with my best friend, Diane Johnston, who was far more sophisticated and coordinated than I.  I stumbled on a curb, fell, barked myself up a bit, and limped home saddened.  My parents were concerned, and plied me for details. 

I didn't know the word for "curb" at that age, and called it a "ledge."  That was the best noun I could scrounge from my limited vocabulary.  Of course my parents were frantic to hear I had fallen off a ledge, and I was bundled onto the couch and palpated for damage.  Diane, sensitive and loyal friend that she was, waited until all the grownups were gone, then said, "That was not a ledge, you moron!  That was a curb."  I immediately recognized the truth of her message.  "Curb."  Right.  That was the word I was groping for.

My parents had one of those enormous old dictionaries, about the size of a small bureau drawer, which they kept open on our window seat in a carved stand.  We all loved that fat old dictionary, and our parents sent us off to look things up, either there or in our family's set of encyclopedias in the built-in maple bookshelves next to the fireplace.  By the time I was in sixth grade, my friends were mocking me for using big words.  I loved words.  I was acing the Reader's Digest vocabulary tests by the time I was 12 years old.

When my youngest child was a baby, I discovered a series of vocabulary workbooks.  The author stated that senior executives consistently scored significantly higher than the rest of the population she had tested for her research.  Of course I had to have that set.  I wanted to see if I would test as high as the bigwigs, and I wanted to give my kids a leg up on their future by marching them through the course.

I still believe a well-developed vocabulary is a hallmark of leadership.  It is very obvious at Microsoft, the corporation I am most familiar with, and impressive in the media and literature I especially enjoy.

I am reading "The Pale King" now, and writing down all the words I don't know, to look up later on the internet.  [Nostalgia alert: I don't own a paper dictionary.]  I feel like that seven year-old who couldn't name a curb, again.  David Foster Wallace throws obscure vocab at his readers like rice at a wedding.  Sometimes he just includes a long list of medical or accountancy terms with no narrative or preamble, like a bag of candy that needs no further explanation.  I am loving this book and researching the long list of words I have captured.

If you have a child in your home, consider an active program for working on his or her vocabulary.  Words are the mechanics of ideas, and well-spoken people are likely to be clear thinkers and persuasive leaders.  The minute you start collecting words you are not sure of, you will find them everywhere; and you can look them up with your child.  A mastery of language is preparation for the creation and evaluation of ideas.  I believe it is one of the most valuable tools you can give a child-- but I am prejudiced.  I once fell off a ledge just because I didn't know it was a curb.

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