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The Vocab of Success: The Fine Line between Feeling Confident and Sounding Like a Jerk

So you've survived the interview, and have your eye on the boss' corner office. To get there, you'll need to impress clients, co-workers, and management. Boosting your vocabulary is a great way to communicate that you're brainy and brazen enough to move up the corporate ladder.  However, misuse of high-level vocabulary can make you look like a toolbag. Here are a few pitfalls to avoid.

1) Don't use words if you're not absolutely certain of their meanings! Incorrectly using a big word in front of the boss will quickly get you on the fast track to infamy. A great (or terrible) example is a well-known flub by a college basketball player. He described himself as "mphibious" because he could dribble with both his left and right hands! Of course, he meant "ambidextrous," but he made himself the laughing-stock of the sports world for misusing a word. Don't be that guy!

2)Be very careful to pronounce newly learned words correctly. It's one thing to know what a word means when you read it. It may be an entirely different matter when you attempt to integrate that word into conversation. When asking the boss whether it will be your prerogative to choose the caterer for the office party, take care not to pronounce it "perogative." And you'll order a selection of potent potables for the party, not "pottables." Most dictionary websites now have sound bytes of correct pronunciations, so there's no excuse for stumbling over words.

3)Just because your friends use a word in a certain way, never assume that your friends' usage is accurate. There are hundreds of words for which common usage has taken a departure from the dictionary definition. A great example is the word "epic." Kids, epic does not mean "really cool." When used as an adjective, it means "on a grand scale." Hence an epic battle is a conflict that's large or very important. Your friend's pool party can't really qualify as epic (unless there are about 1,000 people showing up). Another commonly misused word is "tirade," which means "an angry speech," despite popular culture leading you to believe it's some sort of murderous crime spree. If you've never come across a word in writing, take care to look it up before trying it out on the company president.

4)Avoid non-words at all costs. The classic example is "irregardless." It's not a word, even though your parents, friends, and even bosses may use it. An example in current events was Sarah Palin's neologism "refudiate." Despite her defense that she intended to make-up a word, it's clear she simply combined refute and repudiate. Just because something sounds like it should be a word, that doesn't mean it IS a word.

The simplest rule of thumb is to only use new words from trustworthy sources. If your doctor friend uses a word, chances are she's using it correctly. If Sarah Palin uses a word you've never heard, that should be a red flag. Now go out there and impress the boss (after you've pulled out your trusty dictionary)!

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Jennifer Cohen is the President and Chief Word-Nerd at Word-Nerd.com, a site devoted to SAT and PSAT vocabulary prep.

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