The Vocabulary of Professionals


Today as I was riding into work on the train, I read a newspaper advertisement aimed at people trying to find a job. Some of the words were hard to make out, because the woman holding the paper kept shifting in her seat. She’s not really into sharing. But the headline that caught my eye was, “Learn the 40 Words that Professionals Use”. Amazed that they only use forty, I wanted to know more.

Generally, I don’t read from the woman in front of me, because frankly, her tastes don’t match my own. Lately, she has vacillated between exploitive entertainment-industry rags and paperbacks filled with romantic woes. I never found out how the previous one ended, but in the last passage I read Camilla and Thor were racing away from the castle of her torment on a thunderous steed with rain pounding down upon their ravaged bodies clad only in… Well, you get the picture.

Words can say a lot about you:

  • the ones you use in conversation,
  • the ones you choose to read,
  • and the ones you write.

Limiting your vocabulary to say, forty words, can stunt your development, socially and professionally. Restricting syntax to that of your profession provides transitional barriers as well. To be successful in an upwardly mobile lifestyle, you will need the use of words and phrases that relate your experiences, feelings and intentions to others. It should also be noted that those “others” who lead us and set policies may not be chemists. For many, our futures lie in the hands of MBA’s or, shall I say it, marketing specialists.

These creatures of the outside world seldom care about thermodynamic equations, even though they may someday face entropic death. They speak of real cats, not those trapped in theoretical boxes, and the only retro-synthesis they have experienced is the post-modern fashion flashback to the 70’s.

The most common relational denominators typically deal with societal trends and fads. Places to look for help include sports, movies, or if you’re really desperate, “American Idol.” Even if you don’t watch the TV show, knowing that Sanjaya’s hairstyle weekly evolves into gravity defying configurations can give you an entrée into a conversation.

Knowing the language of other professions is also helpful. In addition to speaking English, Spanglish and broken German, I have training in finance, project management and IT. Coming from a background in the “central science”, learning how to speak like others seems old hat. Goodness knows I’ve already had to learn the lingo of biology, physics and medicine just to ensure that my research projects went smoothly.

Ultimately, the best tool for the expansion of your vocabulary is reading, and although it may sound like a foreign phrase, “reading for pleasure” will yield the best results. Certainly, you should be reading technical articles and books for your professional development, but they are unlikely to incorporate the plethora of vernacular used in common language.

In closing, I challenge you to flex your linguistic tongue, by learning the 40 words used by professionals. If the lady in front of me would move her thumb, I would read them to you. As it stands, I guess you’ll have to search them out yourselves.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on April 30, 2007.

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