Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Traffic speak

Commentary by JoEllen Collins


JoEllen Collins

Other than being center stage on Broadway, in my list of imagined pursuits, one is prominent: I am a frustrated travel writer. I think most writers carry slips of paper on them to record the specific details of their observations, but I took this activity to the extreme recently when I spent several days in England.

I have always been fascinated with the way we English speakers possess, on each side of the Atlantic, two separate languages. I'm not referring here to the myriad of dialects that make it difficult for a Southerner to understand a Scot, but rather to standard levels of mass communication. In England I focused on the polite way the government advises travelers of perils on the road, scribbling down examples of the very British use of language.

Let me remind my reader that, for the most part, the English seem to me civilized and well mannered in ways we in America often are not. Certainly, before approaching any one or before asking a favor, most Londoners first say, "Excuse me...." When I lived in Italy I practiced this as well, and I do think any traveler is well advised to respect this initial invasion of the space of his hosts. However, I do think it is a preeminent practice in England to be somewhat circumspect when asking or giving directions, for example, and I thought the formal language of traffic signs accurately reflected this politesse.

On the highway from Dover after a Channel crossing, I saw a sign warning, "Queues likely ahead." The use of language in that phrase can only be British English! Roads onto the E4 are called "slip roads," indicating that one "slips" into the flow of traffic rather than pushing in. Then there was the London sign that advised, "Pedestrians cross when green man is displayed." In America we also see figures on lighted signs telling us when to cross the street, but the use of "is displayed" is a passive, polite way to alert pedestrians, even though most city workers ignore the peril and cross whenever they can avoid an oncoming lorry! Likewise, at a gasoline (pardon me, "petrol") station, a sign warns, "No smoking or naked lights," allowing me to ponder that abomination! I smiled when I saw a sign in the city that said "no pedestrians or horses," and was moved when, in a village near Dover, I saw a sign with a drawing of two older people with bent postures, the woman carrying a cane, and underneath the words alerting the driver to the presence of "Elderly People."

All of these admonitions seemed especially civilized to me, reflecting an inborn sense of the value of careful wording and a respect for our language that is a hallmark of British writing. I also kept note of some colorful phrases that I had to ask my host to translate for me. In a Sunday Financial Times interview Shirley MacLaine was described as having a "bolshiness" about her, which I learned meant a counter-culture sense most of us would recognize. She was also described as engaging in a "rumbustious" one-on-one, (something I imagine is akin to "rambunctious"). Kate Muir, another lively columnist I admire, used the words "dippily" and "gobsmackingly" in one Sunday Times column, coining new terms, at least to me. I got the "gist" of the expressions.

Years ago I giggled at the sign by the Woman's Pond in Hampstead Heath, a favorite sunning spot for topless bathers. It said, "Ladies, please keep your bottoms on." I noted, this time around, many other instances of colorful British English: a "pulley" is a sweater, a "jumper" a woman's sweater or dress, and a vest a "waistcoat." To "fly tip" is to deposit uninvited garbage somewhere. "Grockel" labels one an outsider or tourist; a face towel is a "flannel." "Peppercorn rent" is a token fee paid by wealthy people to live in luxury and help someone else avoid tax laws on properties. If you accept the "Queen's shilling," you are being fooled: long ago a shilling was given to naïve and often drunken young men unknowingly conscripted for service in the Royal Navy. How delighted a lover of language can be with the way expression reflects cultural values!

The only time I yearned for a hostile sign was when I choked at the cigarette smoke that is inescapable anywhere one goes in that part of the world. I yearned for "NO SMOKING" signs. Perhaps, sometime, directness is appreciated!

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