October 2, 1998
Semantics is the study of the meaning of words, and so, when our fearless leader appeared to be struggling the other day with his understanding of "is," I turned to a long-time friend, Charles Kemnitz, who has been trained in that field. He is a semanticist, one of the few I actually know, and both of us take delight in the pursuit of purity and clarity in the English language. In an attempt to be helpful, I asked him for any information he could provide concerning the issue of "is." Here is what he had to offer:
"My memory of a course in the Oxford English Dictionary," he wrote, "was that 'is' has more meanings than any other in the English language, with more than 200 (including all forms of to be, which are included under is). And, yes, (President) Clinton did quibble over two of those possible meanings. Where he made a fool out of himself, though, is that even though 'is' has 200 dictionary meanings, its meaning is determined by its use, its context; and the context in which it was used in the question left no room for ambiguity. I would say this is an 'old lawyer's trick,' but it only works when there is true contextual ambiguity. Otherwise you just look like you're evading or stupid."
I hope that helps, if, a question about the meaning of "is" comes up again. My thanks to Charles, a former colleague in the Ditch Witch graphic arts department. He is now on the faculty of a university in Pennsylvania. Charles is the son of our neighbor, Mrs. George Kemnitz.
As I've noted previously, friends often bring me objects of interest with the notation that they need not be returned. That takes a load off but it also means that quite often I wind up examining something of special interest but with no idea of its source. Unless I devise a tagging system or some method of identifying who gave me what, I have this annoying habit of not remembering where things came from. Such a one is a small booklet titled One Thousand and One Things Worth Knowing, published in 1855 by Henry Stephens. The flyleaf adds this statement: "A book disclosing invaluable information, receipts and instruction, in the useful and domestic arts. Everything of which is of practical use to everybody." What more could we ask?
The sale price at the time of publication a century and a half ago was twenty-five cents, but I regard it today as a priceless treasure. It offers 144 pages of household health hints, including cures for such obscure ailments as run-arounds, quinsy, consumption and summer complaints. It also tells the etiquette of courtship and marriage, including how to write love letters. Cookery for the sick room is covered along with the care of furniture and housekeeping articles. In short, it touches on just about anything you would want to know about everything, just as the flyleaf suggests.
The problem is, I don't know where this little gem came from. I hope the donor is reading this and will let me know something of its origin.