Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Power of Language - to Confuse

As an erstwhile English major and former writer for a television newscast, I suppose I have always been somewhat fascinated by the power of the English language to inform, to console, to lift up, and yes, to confuse.

Here is a case in point. Every day, on my way home from work, I drive past my son's junior high school. At the exit from the school grounds there is a sign that reads as follows: Golf and Metal Detectors Prohibited on School Grounds. Initially, I wondered about the ban on metal detectors, but then it hit me. Why would anyone need a detector to determine whether people were playing golf on school grounds? And what would such a detector look like?

Silly? Probably. But such nuances of the language cause problems for native and non-native speakers alike. Often, the meaning depends on how a person reads the message: pronunciation, intonation, etc. In my case, a sometimes bored mind starts to read unintended meanings into things.

Take for instance the road sign: Slow Children at Play. This mind wants to know where the fast children play. And where are the slow children? I never see them playing. They must be too slow for the human eye to notice.

Here in Idaho we also have signs such as Watch For Stock. Am I allowed to gather up any shares of IBM or Microsoft I spot along the roadway?

The first time I came upon a Game Crossing sign I looked for Yahtzee and Monopoly but did not see them. I also wondered if I would then see a Do Not Pass Go sign. I didn't.

On that same drive home every day, I pass two side streets that appear in many respects to be similar to one another. The main difference is that the first side street has a sign that reads No Outlet while the second street has a sign that reads Dead End.

What is the difference? Does one street have access to electricity while the other one doesn't? Does it mean that once you take one of these streets you can never make your way back out? Or does it simply mean that there is no cheap shopping to be had on the street labeled No Outlet? Sometimes, the power of the language is all in how you look at it and in how you say it. Sometimes, it helps to be a little bit out in left field.

No comments: