Does anybody know of a good book on semantics? I wanted to brush up on it for this post but I just haven’t found a good one. First let me clarify. According to the dictionary, semantics is the meaning, or an interpretation of the meaning, of a word, sign, sentence. When used properly, semantics is a useful linguistic tool. Unfortunately it seems to have fallen on hard times. Maybe I should just write one myself. I could call it, Semantics for the Otherwise Intelligent. Here’s my personal experience with the use of semantics.
Way back in grade school, I seem to recall that my teacher told my mom that I was gifted. So much so that she wanted to hold me back for a year. My mom was not so easily fooled and she adamantly refused to be deluded by this inept attempt at semantics. Apparently my mom wasn’t too keen on having her only son re-gifted. I’m pretty sure the thought of having me around even one year longer than necessary for graduation held some sway with her too.
Looking back it would seem that I had all the symptoms of ADHD. I couldn’t sit still, my mind was always racing and my grades sucked. But since this was the 60’s, attention deficit hyperactive disorder was just spelled KID. My mom had a far better remedy than any medication. She ran my butt off. I was the Forest Gump of Prairie Village, Kansas. On the first day of first grade, I ran away from school and made it all the way home before the school even called my mom. From then on, I was “special”. As long as I spent every recess in full sprint mode I would return to the classroom ready to learn. I wonder how many kids today would benefit from more perspiration and fewer prescriptions? I wasn’t special or disordered, I was just being a kid.
Which brings me to today and our insatiable need to semanticize everything with a label or suitable acronym. I had one teenage girl in the car recently who claimed to be paranoid schizophrenic and bipolar. I know this because she had this conversation with herself, “I hear voices sometimes…Oh, no you don’t!” She seemed perfectly normal to me so I think it was her way of getting the good meds. It must be nice to solve all our problems with another prescription instead of having to learn how to cope. But who am I to argue with the highly regarded medical profession and the pharmaceutical companies who keep finding new diseases to label and medicate. It’s really hard to make a profit when people learn to modify their behavior and minimize their problems.
But the greatest purveyors of semantics are our beloved politicians who are in a class by themselves, thankfully, when it comes to saying one thing and meaning something else. It hasn’t always been this bad but it has gotten progressively worse in my lifetime. When the President recently drew a line in the sand over chemical weapons in Syria he missed a great opportunity to eliminate any chance of semantics. He might have taken a lesson from Harry Truman’s administration during WWII who gave this ultimatum to the Japanese government at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, “the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland“. That’s incredibly specific and he punctuated his point with 2 atomic bombs shortly after the Japanese refused to surrender. The war ended in a matter of days with an unconditional surrender. On the other hand, drawing a line in the sand in the Mideast means almost nothing.
In my humble opinion, semantics are a huge waste of time and the chief cause of mass hysteria. Semantics are the candy coating of words that politicians think is necessary to make bad news seem like good news. The truth might set us free but semantics gets us to buy stuff. With all of our access to online information and fact-checking wouldn’t it seem like now would be a good time to just tell the truth? I know I’m not gifted or special, in any way, but I cope with that reality the best I can. I can handle the truth and frankly my life is a lot more enjoyable now that I stopped worrying about what labels apply to me. I think Mark Twain explained our basic need for the truth when he said this, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
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