Book Review: Signspotting

Signspotting:  Absurd And Amusing Signs From Around The World, compiled by Doug Lansky

When one reads road signs, it is worthwhile to appreciate on their absurdity.  At times a given sign may seem to make sense when the elements are viewed in isolation, but when viewed together, reveal something very alarming, as when a road is marked as simultaneously “not a through street” and “evacuation route,” which is the invitation to a deep sort of tragedy if there should be a tsunami or hurricane or other natural disaster.  At other times, names that once had a quaint personal or historical reason seem amusing and absurd because of that they mean to others, such as French Lick State Park in Kentucky or the small (and somewhat dull) town of Boring, Oregon, one of my favorite towns to drive through in the eastern part of the Portland metropolitan area.  Still other names are absurd because they rely on a disconnect between the intentions of the signmaker and the understanding of the audience, such as a restaurant that is called Barf or a restrictive speed limit as one approaches the high speed racing area of the Bonneville Salt Flats, to give a couple of the more egregious examples.

This book is a short one that is long on photos and funny captions and that is sure to make any experienced traveler howl in laughter or at least give many a wry grin.  The author introduces the reality that a great many signs are made in English around the world by people who do not know English idioms all that well and are fond of making a lot of bad and likely intentional puns with hilarious results over the rest of the book.  Whether one is looking at the strange mixture of gasoline and fried chicken being advertised by a gas station or ponder the desirability of stopping at the Thunder Hole restrooms, or alarmed by signs that warn about “sudden gunfire” or unnecessary cautions about pedestrians walking (what else would they be doing?  what other kind of pedestrians are there?),  there is a lot to be amused about here.  Still other signs warn against foot wearing or warn people that there is no exit for Paradise or mention that Promised Land is closed or point out that a parking lot is not a street for those who might be confused.  Still other signs are full of bizarre irony, like the Safe Haven small animal hospital that welcomes hungers (!!) or that offer relaxation areas in remote landslide-prone areas along the China-Pakistan border or that market restaurants with unpleasant names like El Guacashito, which doesn’t sound like any restaurant I would want to go to.

As someone who has traveled around the world, I can attest to the existence of many very unintentionally hilarious or awkward signs along roadsides, for businesses, or in tourist areas.  It is unsurprising that this book is only the first of a series of books on the same subject, though lamentably my local library system only had this volume of the set.  One of the lessons this book reinforces is that signs become funny when they are viewed in a different context than that which is meant by the person making the sign.  The desire for efficiency to the point of terseness on the part of people making signs tends to create a sort of Kuleshov effect by which different instructions or pieces of advice or notices end up being viewed as part of the same message, with humorous results.  So long as people imperfectly understand English or fail to understand the full context of what they are trying to communicate, there are going to be a lot more books like this one full of terrible signs to be laughed at by people like me.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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