Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

March 27, 2013

ABACUS COLUMN: Semantics, history, knowledge, and wisdom 101

By Larry Backus
Sun contributor

CROSSVILLE — During my college days, way back in the last century, I had a professor of English named Herman Newman. Mr. Newman expertly taught a particular study of language known as “semantics.” I recall that he was one of my favorite professors and the course remains indelible in my practice of language these many years later. Other than being married to Ruth Lyons, Mr. Newman was a dapper, witty and articulate professor who was much admired by his students. If you are not familiar with the name Ruth Lyons you are not from the Midwest, or you are young; a description I apply to anyone under age 65. Ruth was the “Oprah” of radio and TV during the 1940s through 1960s. Ruth was much more animated and talkative than Herman but they shared the traits of honesty, wit and compassion. Herman was not Ruth Lyon’s “Stedman.” He was his own person; he never mentioned Ruth or her incredible impact on her viewers and sponsors in his classes; even though everyone knew of his wife. He was an excellent teacher. Semantics is a word of Greek origin. It is the science or study of the meaning and relationship of words in a language and is part and parcel to “linguistics,” which is the broader study of language and words.  

One reason for this column is a concern that our American penchant for change in the headlong search for “progressiveness” in language may be permanently damaging to our American version of English. Such leading publications as The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine now have weekly lists of newly concocted and proposed words. Facebook, twitter and texting add thousands of new words or variations of existing words to our lexicon each year. I question the promotion of these “new” words if students today do not first learn to use the words they're already supposed to know, in both oral and written form.

Some high schools and colleges are also dropping social studies and civics courses. I was fortunate to have a broad base of courses in high school that was enhanced in college. Although my college degree was in business, I had courses in English, geography, history and law, as well economics, advertising, statistics, management and accounting. Those English, history, geography and law courses were as valuable in my business career as my business related courses. Let me dispel any notion that I was a good student; overall I was average, even though I made the Dean’s List twice ... two out of 15 is better than none.

This also leads to another subject that is being retired in some high school and university curriculums – history. Travel is now inevitable in most lucrative occupations, regardless of whether the business is physically located in the United States or not. My history courses became more valuable when I traveled to other countries in Europe and the Far East for business. Can you imagine a large business in any field of expertise sending a young executive to Germany, Italy, Israel, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, Japan or China who did not speak English as well as the businessmen and women he would encounter in those countries? Would knowledge of the history and customs of the country of destination be advisable? At age 28 I traveled to Europe on business alone; my travel seasoned boss was to meet me in Italy, but suffered a slipped disc in transit. He flew back to the U.S. from London on a stretcher and I was left to deal with business appointments in multiple countries. That successful business trip led to many more and added greatly to my understanding of people, art and our world. Without a broad base of schooling by dedicated teachers, that first business trip abroad might well have been my last.

The most important lesson I learned in school was that school was designed to establish only a broad base of current knowledge. Adding to that base was to be the goal – a perpetual quest more than an end game of diplomas and certificates. I believe the creation of a thirst for knowledge in a student is the real goal of any formal education. And what about wisdom, you may ask? If I knew the definitive answer to that question and wisdom could be bottled and sold, I would be wealthier than Warren Buffet. I believe that wisdom is an individual quest that can be nurtured throughout one’s life by many people, by nature, by faith and even by knowledge. Some people gain wisdom at a young age, some miss the real value of knowledge; most of us gather wisdom like a rolling stone throughout life.  I’m happy some wisdom stuck to me and I’m happy I remain on a roll.