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The joy of silly sign language - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Dec 19, 2022


Language can sometimes give almost as much fun, albeit unintentionally, when badly used as when well used. The language of officialdom comes to mind. By Johnny Grimond

Pompous officials think important messages deserve long signs, such as the request ‘Please use the handrail provided’ that I notice every time I go through Aberdeen airport. This, you may say, is not important at all. Indeed, it is unnecessary. It might as well say ‘Please use the stairs provided’. Moreover, how could anyone use the handrail if it weren’t provided? Such thoughts ease the strains of air travel.

Other officials think it’s cool to be crisp. ‘Take back control’ is said to have won the referendum for the Leavers. Could its originator, Dominic Cummings, now running the country, also be responsible for ‘See it. Say it. Sorted’?

That moronic mantra is presumably aimed at those who, had they not been warned, would remain inert while gazing at a sputtering fuse without realising they had only to invoke some unnamed deity for the devilish device to be instantly disabled, allowing them to get back to their knitting and remain undisturbed until the next station stop.

In the same category is ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’. This must surely win an award for inanity.

It’s tempting to think that things were better in the war, when ‘Make Do and Mend’ and ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ left no room for confusion. In truth, officials have always found it easy to cause bafflement, even when their words are short and their syntax impeccable.

Writing to the Times in 2016, Alan Bird cited the occasion when, as a soldier in Singapore, he was asked by a perplexed Malaysian colleague what was meant by a notice on the barrack-room door stating ‘Beds will be made up as laid down in standing orders’.

I think, though, that I’ve had more pleasure from foreign signs than from British ones. One that sticks in the mind could be found in the Domain, a wonderful park in central Sydney, in the 1980s: ‘No person shall climb any tree or jump over any seat or fence, or lie upon or under any seat’, it asserted – and, just as important, ‘No aircraft may land’.

That was at least explicit, even if it was no more useful than the signs that periodically alarm helpless drivers with their warnings of low-flying aircraft or the words ‘Caduta massi’, illustrated by huge boulders rolling down Italian hillsides.

A notice that used to give me pleasure in Paris was the injunction in the Métro to yield up one’s seat to ‘mutilés de guerre’, ‘familles nombreuses’ and ‘femmes enceintes’. I lived in hope that as I rattled along towards Porte de Clignancourt the doors would open at the next station and in would spill a horde of mutilated soldiers, parents surrounded by countless children and a platoon of pregnant women.

I’ve seen plenty of signs in my travels exhorting support for the revolution, devotion to the regime and praise for the dictator du jour. The sentiment behind ‘Hurrah for President Tolbert’ on a banner across a street in Monrovia in 1971 was probably genuine, but did not endure long enough to bring salvation to Liberia.

The sentiment behind the ten-foot-high letters that I saw in the Russian city of Vorkuta 26 years later was, and probably always had been, completely absent among the locals: ‘Long Live Soviet-Bulgarian Friendship,’ it urged. Not a main concern, I suspect, of the wretches who lived in this Arctic outpost.

A more considered message graced a banner I spotted in Congo in 1969, aimed at persuading Kinshasa’s drivers to resist the temptation to mow down pedestrians like wild animals: ‘Le piéton, est-il une bête à traquer?’ it asked. The authorities in Delhi in 1998 had a similarly reflective attitude: ‘Life is fast,’ read their banner. ‘Why not relax at a red light?’

Even better was the injunction on roadside signs in Texas in the 1980s: ‘Drive Friendly,’ they said. Still good advice.