Respectful Insolence

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign…

Continuing the wind-down from vacation… (Don’t worry; the Orac-ian magnum opus-style posts will return whenever I manage to work my way back up to them again. Besides, it’s a holiday; do you really want to read one of my rants today?)

One of the cool things about wandering around London was hearing and seeing the differences in language use between Britain and the U.S., differences which led to the famous saying about America and Britain being two nations divided by a common language, a quote that has been attributed at various times to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, or even Winston Churchill. It goes beyond the difference in accent or spelling (i. e., “colour” versus “color” or ” hospitalised” versus “hospitalized”). Some of the differences in language use are subtle; some amusing (I still hear that voice from the Tube telling me to “mind the gap” in my sleep sometimes), and some just puzzling (calling an overpass a “flyover,” for example, given that no flying is done, except in extremely bad car crashes that involve falling off the overpass). After about a day in London, I started noticing signs. It started with this one at Covent Gardens:

i-1c9218a18e9ab2237036374772880648-IMG_0394.JPG

I liked the sound of using the word “till” instead of “cash register.” After that, I started noticing other signs and photographing the interesting ones. (Mark posts photos of breathtaking natural beauty; I post photos of signs. Perhaps next weekend I’ll post some other photos from my trip.) For example, I saw this one at Victoria Station:

i-6769bd6e52fa0f975b36fba38b04df73-IMG_0435.JPG

“Muster point”? It wasn’t clear at all from the sign exactly what passengers were supposed to be mustering for or, for that matter, where. I assumed it was the nearby archway. In any case, I wondered if this sign was a holdover from World War II that someone never quite got around to removing. It sounds rather more military than we’re used to here in the U.S.

Then there were signs that were rather more honest than anything I’ve ever seen in the U.S.:

i-6972538ecf80714d3ef97153e3953505-IMG_0579.JPG

I can’t picture any American community openly admitting that thieves are operating in an area and warning tourists. The police and government would be too worried about scaring away tourists. To me it was refresing. Personally, I was grateful for the notice and kept a close hand by my wallet whenever in an area where I saw these signs. Unfortunately, I saw them in more areas than I would have liked.

Some signs were rather more polite and detailed than I’m used to here in the States:

i-fb0625c9d6cbb48805b15f52d89afbdf-IMG_0429.JPG
i-3e3353b972f0abbe034c85cc301ce30c-IMG_0637.JPG

Busking,” by the way, is nothing more than what street performers do. As for the parking meter sign, in the U.S. it would just say “broken” or, more likely than not, nothing at all.

Here was a rather helpful sign I saw near the Tate Britain:

i-0711a1e66a6ca21183c70a6b4993d6cc-IMG_0427.JPG

You’d never see a sign like this in the U.S.

When we visited the Tower of London, we saw a couple of oddities. First, how did the Colonel manage to invade the Tower?

i-e8451dcd5a02fced4f0cdba15fa5b80e-IMG_0574.JPG

In fact, U.S. fast food seems to be everywhere in London now. There were three Starbucks, two Subways, and a McDonalds within a block of our hotel. I kid you not. I was half tempted to try the McDonalds just to see if it was any different than in the U.S., but thankfully restrained myself. The other oddity at the Tower of London was this one:

i-731ffa0639e8f44aed1ac6c399f1c717-IMG_0619.JPG

Yes, one way to go to the bathroom, one way to see the ravens. (If you’re not familiar with why there would be a sign leading to ravens at the Tower, an explanation can be found here.) And, of course, if you have a baby, a visit to the Tower of London wouldn’t be complete without a visit here:

i-ed0dccfe1aa160c3c5a05beca1a97791-IMG_0577.JPG

It sounds so much more civilized that “diaper.”

But my all time favorite British sign was found in a restaurant, over the stairs leading down to the lavatories:

i-534ddc7f3731ed81387dde9421acf0c5-IMG_0661.JPG

I’d say that’s excellent advice in almost any situation.

Comments

  1. #1 Old Ari
    September 3, 2007

    Nappy is short for napkin. Pity you can’t get up north and see Hadrian’s wall.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    September 3, 2007

    The muster point is probably for fire alerts – when the fire alarm goes off, people should muster in the same place so they can see who’s missing.

    And that’s something I would never have thought I’d end up having to explain.

    Bob

  3. #3 Soren Kongstad
    September 3, 2007
  4. #4 Adrian W
    September 3, 2007

    I like how they took the time to write both “16:23 hrs” and “(4:23 pm)” on the parking meter sign.

  5. #5 jenjen1352
    September 3, 2007

    UK McDonalds have a slightly sweeter (and imo nicer) tasting mayonnaise. Other than that, they’re both revolting.

  6. #6 MiddleO'Nowhere
    September 3, 2007

    With respect to honest signs/warnings, my favorite was found in Ireland. It was on a cigarette vending machine and said, “Smokers die younger.”

    No wishy-washy warnings from the Surgeon General such as, “Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health.”

  7. #7 Thony C.
    September 3, 2007

    The muster point is probably for fire alerts – when the fire alarm goes off, people should muster in the same place so they can see who’s missing.

    These days, unfortunately, its more likely to be a bomb alert!

  8. #8 Joe
    September 3, 2007

    I spent three weeks at the Marine Biological Research Station in Bermuda amongst a mixed goup of Americans and Brits. The most common word was “What?”. One night, a woman from Scotland asked me to knock her up in the morning! That brought the house down. I swear I knew she meant to knock on her door; but the others said the look on my face was priceless. If I had any presence of mind, I would have asked “Why wait?”.

    BTW, the reason you don’t see any warnings about pick-pockets here is because the signs assist the thieves. When you note such a sign you pat your wallet, and the pick-pocket sees where you keep it.

  9. #9 JamesS
    September 3, 2007

    They dont fool around with road signs in England either. When you see a sign that says “Road Ends Ahead” you better get over cause your lane is about to disappear. No thousand yard notice, no nice merge lane, you’ll just find a brick wall ahead of you.

    Instead of signs warning of a single lane bridge ahead, I found signs that said things like “trucks in middle of road ahead” and similar things.

    but the best was some construction around some roundabouts. All but one exit was closed and the sign said “ALL ROUTES THIS WAY” which when you followed to the next intersection was a sign that “ALL OTHER ROUTES THIS WAY”

    I was laughing too hard and had to go around again ;)

  10. #10 Clare
    September 3, 2007

    Warnings about thieves would be helpful in Heathrow airport, where my green card was nicked. Lost property told me that “tons” of passports and identity documents are reported lost, and few ever turn up in their office. That’s comforting…

    This site on the differences in British and American English is good.

  11. #13 lynneguist
    September 3, 2007

    Thanks to the commenter Clare above who linked to my blog…many of the differences between American and British Englishes noted in this post have been discussed in some depth there (including quite a bit on ‘minding’ one’s head, the gap, etc.). For a few more signs that are foreign to American English speakers, see: http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/search/label/signage

    As for nappy being kinder on the ear than diaper, may I suggest that that’s a sign of an American-English inferiority complex at work? While it’s great to enjoy British English, it’s a shame to diss your own tongue. If diaper was good enough for Shakespeare (in Taming of the Shrew), it’s good enough for me!

  12. #14 Strabo
    September 3, 2007

    The cross channel ferries I went on always had ‘Muster Points’ that passengers were supposed to go if the ship started sinking. But I’ve never seen them anywhere else.

    You also see “Warning, theives about” signs quite a bit. My local library warns them, and I’ve seen a sign by the roads warning about theievs stealing sat-nav.

  13. #15 Strabo
    September 3, 2007

    The cross channel ferries I went on always had ‘Muster Points’ that passengers were supposed to go if the ship started sinking. But I’ve never seen them anywhere else.

    You also see “Warning, theives about” signs quite a bit. My local library warns them, and I’ve seen a sign by the roads warning about theievs stealing sat-nav.

  14. #16 Graculus
    September 3, 2007

    If diaper was good enough for Shakespeare (in Taming of the Shrew), it’s good enough for me!

    “Diaper” originally meant a diamond-shaped (pattern), IIRC.

    Anyways, Shakespeare didn’t use it to mean “infant bum-wrap”, its usual use today.

  15. #17 SLC
    September 3, 2007

    What is called a station wagon over here (mostly supplanted by SUVs) is called a shooting brake in the British Isles.

  16. #18 Dr Aust
    September 3, 2007

    I spent three weeks at the Marine Biological Research Station in Bermuda amongst a mixed goup of Americans and Brits. The most common word was “What?”. One night, a woman from Scotland asked me to knock her up in the morning! That brought the house down. I swear I knew she meant to knock on her door; but the others said the look on my face was priceless. If I had any presence of mind, I would have asked “Why wait?”. …Joe

    Glad to hear this classic transatlantic linguistic curio still works. The phrase can actual have other meanings in British English too. My (British) father always says one of his most embarrassing ever moments in science was when giving his first ever seminar in the US at the NIH in Bethesda in 1963. Explaining how his UK lab had had to put together a research team in short order to tackle such-and-such a problem, he stated they had “just had to knock up a team with whoever was available”.

    Cue mass hilarity among audience, and bemusement for my dad.

    What is called a station wagon over here (mostly supplanted by SUVs) is called a shooting brake in the British Isles. …SLC

    Have to say that in 40+ yrs I’ve never ever heard them called that, SLC. The UK term was and remains “estate car”, or nowadays just “estate”.

    I know because we took a Rambler station wagon back to the UK with us in 1970 after a 2-yr stay in the States… and my little brother and I had to get used to saying “estate” instead of “station wagon” (and “ice cream” instead of “popsicle”, and various other things) so that we wouldn’t get picked on for sounding American.

    For some reason, the sign that always gets me is the one that says “These doors are alarmed”, which I guess is everywhere these days. I can’t walk past this one without muttering under my breath: “And the chairs are nervous…” or “And the curtains are jumpy…” or similar.

    Blame cognitive decline.

  17. #19 Leni
    September 3, 2007

    They dont fool around with road signs in England either. When you see a sign that says “Road Ends Ahead” you better get over cause your lane is about to disappear. No thousand yard notice, no nice merge lane, you’ll just find a brick wall ahead of you.

    I don’t know why I found this so funny, but I completely guffawed when I read this. They’ll warn you about leaning trees, but oncoming death? Pshaw!

    As for tills, that’s one I’ve used a lot. (I’m American.)

    I worked in restaurants and bars for much of my early adult life and they were always called tills. As in “Oh crap, the till is short again.” That may be a Midwestern thing, but I don’t think so. I think it would sound really weird to say “The cash register is short again”. It’s makes it sound as if the machine itself shrunk.

  18. #20 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 3, 2007

    And that’s something I would never have thought I’d end up having to explain.

    I had the same reaction. Btw, a muster point is assured to be at safe distance from building fires, and precludes secondary accidents and delays due to people (hurt or unhurt) wandering amongst fire and rescue workers and vehicles.

    So I wonder – is this a european vs US difference? I’m pretty sure evacuation plans for public or hotel buildings are mandated much the same, but I don’t know if the practices are the same.

    The nice and caring tree sign looks pretty english, tho’. ;-)

    What I appreciate internationally, now used here in some cases, is temporary wet floor signs. It is assumed that you can notice the difference and take caution, but in many situations it is easy to miss.

  19. #21 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 3, 2007

    Leni, distances are shorter in Europe, or at least outside Texas. :-P

    Really, most nations can learn from US traffic systems.

    Then it is a matter of money and climate, lasting and night reflecting road signs that rejects dirt, rain and snow are expensive. (Road signs around work places doesn’t have that excuse.)

  20. #22 sharon
    September 3, 2007

    “What is called a station wagon over here (mostly supplanted by SUVs) is called a shooting brake in the British Isles.”

    Maybe on country estates – I know I’ve heard the term somewhere (but it might refer to something more like a Land Rover). But most of us Brits call what you call a station wagon an estate car.

    When I was a kid we had the estate version of one of the least cool cars in the entire history of the universe ever, for several years. At least it wasn’t that weird shade of green/brown.

  21. #23 Doc Bill
    September 3, 2007

    Outside of North Weald there is a road sign directing you to the:

    Secret Nuclear Bunker

    How polite is that?

  22. #24 lynneguist
    September 3, 2007

    Graculus said:
    If diaper was good enough for Shakespeare (in Taming of the Shrew), it’s good enough for me!

    “Diaper” originally meant a diamond-shaped (pattern), IIRC.

    Anyways, Shakespeare didn’t use it to mean “infant bum-wrap”, its usual use today.

    The Oxford English Dictionary groups together the towel/napkin/nappy sense of diaper, and gives the Shakespeare example as the earliest citation, most likely meaning a towel, judging from the quotation. But it is (like many American/British differences) a case of an American usage being an older form. Nappy in the diaper sense is first cited in 1927.

    Incidentally, an amusing misunderstanding happened (over and over again) when the news of a certain American shock-jock’s ‘nappy-headed hos’ epithet came over to the UK. The natural way to interpret this in the UK was that he was accusing the basketball players of wearing diapers on their heads (in an Aunt Jemima kind of way, presumably). The American meaning of nappy thus had to be explained in many news contexts.

    The diamond meaning that you cite enters the language only in the early 1800s. So, the ‘diamond’ meaning follows the ‘cloth’ meaning, not vice versa.

    2. A towel, napkin, or cloth of this material; a baby’s napkin or ‘clout’.
    1596 SHAKES. Tam. Shr. I. i. 57 Let one attend him vvith a siluer Bason Full of Rose-water, and bestrew’d with Flowers, Another beare the Ewer: the third a Diaper.

  23. #25 lynneguist
    September 3, 2007

    Hm, my paragraphs got re-arranged on the way to posting in my previous message–the OED definition should have been up where I refer to Shakespeare…whoops.

  24. #26 lynneguist
    September 3, 2007

    And another whoops…Graculus, the original diaper cloth had a diamond pattern on it–so while it didn’t come to mean ‘diamond-shaped’ on its own until later, you’re right that there were diamonds from the get-go.

    Sorry for all the posts! Didn’t see a way to delete a comment and start over! (And what with this 500,000th comment competition…)

  25. #27 Ginger Yellow
    September 3, 2007

    “With respect to honest signs/warnings, my favorite was found in Ireland. It was on a cigarette vending machine and said, “Smokers die younger.””

    They changed the warnings on British cigarette packets about five years ago to be much blunter. Of course, this only engendered competition among smokers to see who had the “best” warning, usually: “Smoking kills”. Nobody wanted the “Smoking causes impotence” one, of course.

  26. #28 Inquisitive Raven
    September 3, 2007

    Re: Till

    Actually, my impression (confirmed with an online dictionary look up was that the till refers to the actual tray containing the money rather than the entire register. In many registers, these trays are removable, and cashiers swap them at shift change. Also, bank tellers have tills, but don’t generally deal with cash registers which would also be consistent.

  27. #29 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 4, 2007

    a road sign directing you to the: Secret Nuclear Bunker

    Sounds like the kind of bunker that isn’t on your maps, but on your enemies. :-P

  28. #30 tim gueguen
    September 4, 2007

    I didn’t realise busking and busker weren’t used in the US. Till is often used in Canada as well.

  29. #31 Phil
    September 4, 2007

    The “leaning tree” sign is specifically motivated by the number of double-decker buses there are in London.

  30. #32 Ginger Yellow
    September 4, 2007

    There’s a similar sign on some of the trees on Kingsway, which goes from Aldwych to Holborn.

  31. #33 M
    September 4, 2007

    “These days, unfortunately, its more likely to be a bomb alert!”

    These days? Dude, you should have tried visiting London in the 80s. I don’t think we managed a single trip to see relatives without getting caught up in at least one bomb alert. Some of my favourites were when they closed underground stations to passengers because of bomb warnings/suspicious packages, but so that the system didn’t get gummed up the trains kept running through the station – the driver would accelerate to spend as little time as possible exposed to the platform, and that sensation of whipping through the station was great. Well, to a child with no sense of danger it was.

    I am confused – do US buildings not have muster points? Often they’re not labelled (you’re just told that it’s the staff car park or whatever), but they’re common everywhere.

  32. #34 jp
    September 4, 2007

    It’s Covent Garden, not Covent Gardens.

  33. #35 Mark UK
    September 4, 2007

    I like the sign you see sometimes on a dual carriage way just before a roundabout “Use both lanes”… I know it’s childish…

    By the way, in the States the road signs really couldn’t be any smaller… Tiny little signs with an arrow pointing towards the main road.

  34. #36 Mark D
    September 4, 2007

    Re: knocking up. There was a time when there was such a thing a professional knocker-upper. Someone that was paid to wake people up in the early hours of the the morning to ensure that they got to work on time. I have the vague idea that this was a particular feature of mill and mining towns in the north of England, but cannot be sure about that. The knocker-upper would have a long stick with which to rap on the bedroom window to wake people up.

  35. #37 Lord Runolfr
    September 4, 2007

    I can’t picture any American community openly admitting that thieves are operating in an area and warning tourists. The police and government would be too worried about scaring away tourists. To me it was refresing. Personally, I was grateful for the notice and kept a close hand by my wallet whenever in an area where I saw these signs. Unfortunately, I saw them in more areas than I would have liked.

    The signs you were seeing may not have been police warnings but the tools of pickpockets. I read on Scampedia that pick pockets often place such signs themselves. People who see the signs promptly check their wallets (or other valuables), letting the pick-pockets know exactly where to find the goods.

  36. #38 Lab Cat
    September 4, 2007

    In return, my family finds American signs amusing. My brother particularly finds “Bridges ice before roadway” funny.

    Mum likes the fact that American signs are more grammatically correct than in the UK but sadly I cannot think of any examples at the moment.

  37. #39 Donalbain
    September 4, 2007

    I am plagiarising this, but I dont know who from. Probably from the Big Yin..

    In Scotland, the word “mind” doesnt mean “beware of” but instead means “remember”. So, the announcement “mind the gap”, leads us Scots to deep nostalgia about shops that sell khaki trousers.

  38. #40 Janna
    September 4, 2007

    Hey, we use “busker”/”busking” in the Northeast (Philly/Boston/DC). Maybe you are just from a soulless place that does not allow busking? I think I’ve seen buskers in Boulder (called that) as well…
    Although I will admit that Metro buskers (in the trains) deserve to have their equipment confiscated. Especially the mini-amps.

  39. #41 Nix
    September 4, 2007

    A lot of the `warning, thieves’ signs are placed because of a very American fear… of lawsuits from people who had stuff nicked and complain that they weren’t told (what next? `Warning, heart attacks a possibility’ by every hotel bed?)

    And regarding `Really, most nations can learn from US traffic systems’, note that the US is only just learning about roundabouts, which have been heavily used in the UK for decades.

  40. #42 Uly
    September 4, 2007

    “I can’t picture any American community openly admitting that thieves are operating in an area and warning tourists. ”

    Haven’t been in NYC lately, then. We’ve got signs up in the trains not only telling us to beware of pickpockets, but explaining common techniques, like causing a disruption at the turnstiles and having a partner comb the blocked crowd, that sort of thing. We are constantly admonished to “Keep your possessions with us at all times” and a few years ago, for Christmas, we were reminded that “pickpockets give presents too”. (Or maybe it was that pickpockets celebrate too?)

  41. #43 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 5, 2007

    Nix:

    the US is only just learning about roundabouts

    Oh, it goes both ways, sure.

    Here [Sweden] roundabouts are becoming popular as well, since they cut accidents at road meets with a factor 5 or so. (And at a guess, their maintenance costs are far less than meets with lights.)

    I was initially skeptic since for example traffic lights are simpler. But when they are common enough you get used to navigate them.

  42. #44 Ginger Yellow
    September 5, 2007

    Here [Sweden] roundabouts are becoming popular as well, since they cut accidents at road meets with a factor 5 or so.

    Not if they’re designed like this, they don’t.

  43. #45 chris
    September 5, 2007

    Here [Sweden] roundabouts are becoming popular as well, since they cut accidents at road meets with a factor 5 or so. (And at a guess, their maintenance costs are far less than meets with lights.)

    So “road meet” is Swedish for “intersection”?

  44. #46 Strawman
    September 6, 2007

    At the entrance to the car-park of our local hospital, there’s a sign warning that “Thieves operate in this area”.

    You’d think they’d employ surgeons to do that.

  45. #47 Ken
    September 6, 2007

    I have had to explain the meaning of “busking” to tourists before. It is a bit worrying to see signs forbidding it and specifying that you will be fined for doing it if you don’t know what it is. For all you know you might be doing it right now all unawares.

    I have heard the term “shooting brake” but not recently. This might be a regional or class thing.

    My favourite London signs are:
    “Danger: Void Behind Door”
    and (outside a church)
    “TRUTH (coffee on Wednesdays)”

  46. #48 Melissa G
    September 6, 2007

    My favorite sign I saw in the UK was at the top of some castle we were touring– we went up the stairs to the tallest tower, then turned to see that the door behind us said, “NO WAY DOWN.” Oh, no!!!! (cue ominous music, rolling thunder)

    Actually, they’ve installed wi-fi up there just so I can make this post.

  47. #49 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 7, 2007

    chris:

    So “road meet” is Swedish for “intersection”?

    Nope. The bad english is all mine. Intersection it is.

  48. #50 Shannon
    September 12, 2007

    As a US ex-pat now living in the UK for the last three years I’ve had to learn to restrain myself from making such broad generalisations about what would and wouldn’t be done in the US (e.g. the thieves sign) and simply say “In California…” since this is what I’m familiar with and knowing that what’s done in California may not be done in Arizona or Maine. I’ve often seen similar signs warning about pickpockets in areas with high numbers of tourists/people in general in the US such as the wharf in San Francisco or Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. And sometimes I actually find the directness of a message rather rude e.g. when you get money from an ATM it says “We are dealing with your request” and to me that sounds like I’m causing them an inconvenience, but maybe that’s because a long time ago I worked in retail and was told not to use phrases such as that or “Is that all?” which is common here.

  49. #51 Miriam Nadel
    September 19, 2007

    I once saw a sign (at a beach in Tanzania) that read “Caution: Muggers beyond this point.”

  50. #52 pj
    September 29, 2007

    — So “road meet” is Swedish for “intersection”?

    –Nope. The bad english is all mine. Intersection it is.

    Not in British English, it isn’t. ‘[Road] junction’.

  51. #53 Taraza
    October 20, 2007

    I would question whether roundabouts are safer. I know them as traffic circles, and the ones I’ve seen seem like death-traps, trying to get into the proper lane for an exit.
    Also, was the hugely popular American movie “Knocked Up” released in the UK with the same title?

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!