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Jack Smith

Signs of the Times Abound Around World

September 23, 1987|Jack Smith

Ambiguous English signs are found not only in foreign countries, such as England--we are pretty good at them ourselves.

Prof. Sidney W. Benson, scientific co-director of the Hydrocarbon Research Institute at USC, sent me one that was posted for all faculty just before the beginning of the fall semester.

It read: "This is another reminder that during the first week of the Fall 1987 Semester, Monday classes will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 2. You will therefore disregard your Wednesday class schedule on Sept. 2 and meet with your Monday classes instead. The purpose of designating the first Wednesday as a Monday is to make up for the loss of Monday classes caused by scheduling the first day of classes on Tuesday, Sept. 1."

"I thought you would be amused," Prof. Benson says, "by the kind of bureaucratese that can emerge from the most learned quarters."

Actually, it's very clear to me. It means "Skip Monday classes on Monday. Do Monday classes on Wednesday."

But when do they do Wednesday classes?

Only in England, however, could John Howard Steensen have seen the sign he saw in the 1950s on a country lane in Yorkshire:

"Gentlemen motorists, please! Hounds at walk."

That sign spoke of an entire way of life. Englishmen were gentlemen, were they not? And on country roads hounds had the right of way.

"How infinitely more elegant that was," Steensen observes, "than the Orwellian menace of today's road signs: 'Speed Checked by Radar.' " He adds that no such sign would make sense today, because it cannot be assumed that all motorists are men or that all men are gentlemen.

At the U.S. Military Cemetery in Normandy, Dwight Palmer and his wife found signs that said, "Mind the Plantations," which he took to mean "Keep Off the Grass," and "Commit No Nuisance," which he interpreted as "No Trespassing."

Mrs. L. A. Richardson evidently collects signs. She attests to the authenticity of the following:

Sign in hospital: "Children not allowed in the maternity ward."

Sign in launderette: "When finished please remove all your clothes."

Sign on Boulder Dam: "U.S. Government Property. Do Not Remove."

Sign at Ford Motor plant: "Emergency exit only. Not to be used under any circumstances."

Sign in business office: "Executives without secretaries may take advantage of the stenos in the pool."

Sign in administration office of a Colorado college: "Freshman English spoken here."

While waiting in the Swiss village of Chateau d'Oex to go by cable car to the top of the mountain, Mrs. Richardson recalls, she saw a sign printed in three languages.

In English it said: "Please do not pick the flowers."

In German: "It is forbidden to pick the flowers."

In French: "Those who love the mountains leave them their flowers."

Mrs. Richardson makes no philosophical comment on those variations, but it seems to me that perhaps they reflect the cultural differences among German-, French- and English-speaking people.

I do not like to cast any doubt on the authenticity of my favorite sign, which I have quoted as being found on passenger trains in their heyday, as follows:

Passengers must please refrain

From flushing toilets while the train

Is standing in the station .

Though that is exactly the way I remember it, I have received several other versions. My old colleague Ken Dare and his wife, Zelda, report that they have a copy of the original brass plate in their bathroom, and it reads:

Kindly flush toilet

After each use

Except when train

Is standing in Station .

Kenneth A. Schmidt of Monrovia writes that he has collected railroadiana for 50 years and "must disillusion you and your readers as to the actual wording of the cautionary sign."

Schmidt encloses a copy of the Pullman brass plate with exactly the inscription quoted by the Dares.

He says: "I don't know if the copyright on the sign permits you to quote from it."

I'll take that chance.

By the way, we happened to dine the other evening at the Pacific Diner, and when I went to the men's room, I found that same version on a brass plate.

So much for poetic dreams.

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