Signs: Lost in Translation

The language used in signs often does not translate from place to place.  The result is that outsiders are left puzzled, amused, or both.  As a student I spent a semester in England.  I remember my fellow American students and myself being totally appalled by plastic figures of handicapped children on the sidewalks with attached signs asking us to “donate to spastics.”  The cognitive meaning of the words or phrase did not match how it was used in our own colloquial linguistic context.  In these cases we end up being uncomfortable. The phraseology is just not quite right.

It took me two months after my arrival in Hong Kong, and some prompting by someone, to figure out that the “hopper room” sign signaled that there was a garbage chute behind the door.  I had used the phrase “throw it into the hopper” but I somehow didn’t associate this metaphorical act with throwing the garbage down the garbage chute.  It was more about throwing ideas into a pool for consideration.

transfer station sign

I’ve encountered several signs in New England that have caused me some puzzlement.  The first one is the “transfer station.”  I would expect a transfer station to be found at a busy intersection where one could change from one form of transportation to another.  Such is not the case.  Transfer stations are off the beaten trail because they are places where you take your garbage, recyclables, yard waste, etc.   As in:

“Why does Marblehead have a Transfer Station instead of a dump?Materials (trash, recycling) brought to the site at Woodfin Terrace are temporarily stored there until they are “transferred” to licensed locations for disposal or reprocessing.”

Another sign that has caused me puzzlement is one that says that the area I am entering is “thickly settled.”  Thick is a milkshake.  Thick is the width of Texas toast.  Settlements are densely populated, not thick.

Alas, in Massachusetts, the driving manual states: “A ‘Thickly Settled’ district is an area where houses or other buildings are located, on average less than 200 feet apart.”   But the REAL meaning of the sign is that you cannot exceed 30 miles per hour.  Now that is clear as  mud–or am I thick?




And then there are signs that are just wrong.

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