Tag Archives: English idioms

Out of Place

My friend Don Yates recently posted this photo on Facebook and shared it with me. It makes me ask: “What’s a nice word like you doing in a place like this?”








Got it? Keep your cast-offs away from my opera! (In the spirit of the sign and the musical genre it refers to, I added an exclamation point to the previous sentence.)  The people who posted this sign like their Verdi pure, and they appreciate Wagner too much to allow an aria to become a trash basket. And they are watching!

Which brings me to this next sign:









I did a triple take when I saw this sign. Okay, I mused, you can’t go into this restaurant with Fido or Fluffy, your own bottle of scotch, or . . . and here I floundered. (No fish-pun intended.) I’ve never seen a restaurant sign like this. Do people really carry in sushi unless they’re warned not to? Did someone sue after being expelled for smuggling California Rolls? I wish I could decode the characters in the upper right. Maybe they’d help me understand why “sushi” appears here.

One more beauty that stopped me cold:









Applause? True, this sign stands next to a theater door, but not at the performers’ entrance. So who’s waiting for applause? What’s the intended meaning? “Don’t sell yourself short”? “Embrace your inner diva”? “Timing is everything”?

Personally, I have been waiting for applause for a long time. Like, decades. But I’ll clap a little for some nice words sent into bad situations.

Personal Attention

Are you a “people person”? That’s slang for an extrovert, someone who delights in the company of others. (Which brings up this question: If you like one-on-one interactions, does that make you a “person person”?)  The noun “person,” used this way, refers to someone who is extremely interested in whatever descriptive word is attached to it. In this sign, though, “phone person” probably doesn’t refer to someone whose views on the latest iPhone resemble the way the rest of us feel about air. Instead, it’s the easiest way to avoid gender-specific terms. Take a look:









Write “phone man” or “phone woman” and you’re implying the gender of the preferred job- applicant. Top marks to this signmaker for non-sexist language! Not so top marks for communication. What does a “phone person” do? Call or answer or both? People doing those tasks used to be called “operators” or “secretaries.” But back to “person”:









Note: On some devices the image appears small, so I’ll reproduce its message here:

Help wanted


  • Deli Man
  • Delivery Person

According to this sign, anyone can deliver, but only men can work in the deli. Really? I doubt that’s the meaning, if only because the ratio of men to women zooming around with bags of dinner is approximately a zillion to one, judging from my experience dodging delivery bicyclists on the sidewalks of New York. I checked “deli man” in various dictionaries, to find out whether this was a traditional term, like “businessman.” Nope. I’m still scratching my head over the mixed usage — gender nonspecific “person” v. masculine “deli man.” I can imagine a few scenarios: (1) two people worked on the sign or (2) someone cut-and-pasted part of an old sign into a new one or (3) the signwriter was on automatic pilot for the first half of the sign and then remembered that these days, discriminatory hiring is illegal. Other theories welcome.

To be fair, it’s not always easy to come up with an inclusive term. Here’s one effort:









Yes, “fishermen” would be sexist, and “fishermen/women” is way too long. But “fishers” sounds strange, at least to my ears.  And so does, I’m sad to admit, “fisherperson.”  I can’t think of another term that works, though. “Marine-life procurement specialist”? “Seafood harvester”? Nope and nope.

I’ll let you, the “blog person,” figure it out. I’m off to see the deli man for some tuna, caught by fishers.

Necessary Information

In colonial New England, the “necessary” was the room where you took care of necessary bodily functions — in other words, the toilet, restroom, lavatory, bathroom, latrine, powder room — pick your favorite term. (Off-topic but interesting: Why are there so many words for the same place?) The people in charge of these facilities appear to believe that they have to supply information to those who use them, as you see in this sign, which states what I would have thought was fairly obvious:









Okay, is there someone out there who thinks leaving the door open is standard procedure? I should point out that this restroom is right next to the eating area of a small café. You can hear people munching through the closed (and locked) door when you’re inside, and I guess the people outside occasionally hear you. So is a reminder really necessary? Plus, the first statement cries out for a direct object (“before you use the facilities” or something similar). I’d also like to see a period after “Thank you,” which isn’t, I admit, a sentence but seems to need closure.

Onward and ungrammatically upward, as in capital letters:

The sign wants to direct your throwing arm (actually, hand, according to the illustration), but the sign writer throws capital letters around at random. Also note the absence of a period at the end of the sentence — which really is a sentence.

One more:









Aren’t restrooms constructed for “conducting personal hygiene practices”? Isn’t that the whole point? This beauty, by the way, sat atop a sink. I washed my hands anyway. I hope everyone else does, too. It’s necessary.


Do Me a Favor

English can’t do without “do,” a small but important verb. All by itself, “do” means “perform, act, or achieve” or “to be suitable or acceptable.” With another verb, “do” creates questions (“Do you like my new sofa?”), emphasis (“I do like it!”) or negation (“I do not hate the color.”) And then there’s “do” in the world of signs, where it shows up in odd or unnecessary places:







Why not “we repair” all those things? The only way this sign makes sense to me is if it is a response to customers complaining that the shop sells all that stuff and then leaves them on their own to figure out why the audio is supersonic and the video invisible. “You should fix these things,” I hear imaginary enraged clients shouting. In this scenario, “we do repair” is an attempt to shut down accusations.

And then there’s this sign:









Okay, “waxing” is a gerund here, a verb-noun hybrid (the Prius of the grammar world). With “waxing” as a gerund, the verb “do” technically makes sense, because “waxing” is a direct object. This usage still sounds strange to me, though. Yet “we wax” sounds odd also.  To me, “we do waxing” comes across as a boast about some sort of mind-altering, illegal substance: “Cocaine is so 1980s! We do waxing at parties!” Forget about the sign for a minute. Isn’t the whole concept of waxing weird?  Can’t people just shave or stay hairy? But I digress. “We do waxing” should probably be “we offer waxing” or “hair-removal via wax offered here.”

One more:


This sign makes sense, because “massage” is a noun in this sentence (which even has a period! be still my beating, grammatical heart!). Even so, it’s part of the trend that pushes the main action into the direct-object role and inserts an unnecessary verb. I’d rather see something like “we massage backs.”

A final comment: Why “we”? If the store is advertising something, shouldn’t you assume that the employees aren’t sending you to “they” — the repair, waxing, or massage emporium down the block? “We do” want to know, so if you have any theories, post them. And do me a favor: Don’t “do” unless you have to.


Stress Relief

Is your last nerve fraying? Have you had a fight with someone near and dear to you — or with anyone else, for that matter? Maybe you need to stop by this store for some help:







You’d think a team of therapists awaited you inside. Alas, it’s a bank. I imagine that the “relationship manager” working there makes sure you love your money and it loves you back. Or something like that.

If your love life isn’t the problem but you’re fed up with impolite people, try this shop:







No word on whether the cashier, deli worker, and butcher have proper etiquette, but if they don’t, presumably you can hang out with a courtesy clerk until you recover. Or perhaps the clerks sell courtesy? If so, I can recommend a number of potential customers whose supply is low or completely gone.

Still upset? Try this place:

Personally, I can “relive stress” all by myself, but if you need someone to send you into a nightmare flashback, this place is for you. I won’t mention “pour digestion,” spelling errors being beneath my notice, but I admit it took me two or three minutes to decipher the meaning of the second line. Is “jares” supposed to be “jars”? I wondered. But what sort of sport takes place “in jares”? Model ship building? And what on earth is “Over Use in Jares?” Some sort of recycling promotion, as in “don’t use too many jars”? Then it hit me: “in Jares” are “injuries.” Presumably the first reference is to repetitive motion problems and the second to tennis elbow and similar maladies.  After all this work, I had the “low energy” the shopkeepers are supposed to treat. I’d have gone in, but I didn’t want to relive any stress.


As if you didn’t already have enough to worry about, along come a few more things to up your angst level. Take this sign, for example, posted on a construction site near Wall Street:







And here you thought it was enough to educate your kids about sex, drugs, and Internet chat rooms. Hah! Even if you’re far, far away from downtown Manhattan and have no plans to go there, you’re remiss if you don’t sit down with your offspring and explain “the dangers of trespassing on this site” – not the perils of wandering around other sites full of heavy machinery and gaping holes, but definitely this one. Hear that, Tahitians, Alaskans, and  Antarcticans? Tonight, after homework check and before toothbrushing, do your duty.

I confess I still don’t understand what this sign alerts me to, and that fact worries me even more:







Are we talking plutonium here? (And if so, wouldn’t it be “radioactive”?) Sparkling pipes in  cement that can distract you and make you fall flat on your nose? Maybe a Keith Haring drawing of his trademark “radiant child,” formed from neon tubes? You wouldn’t want to walk over a modern masterpiece. Besides,  the two exclamation points imply that radiant tubing is nothing to fool around with. You may suffer unknown consequences if you don’t “beware.” (Make that “beware!”).

I do “beware,” but for safety’s sake I’m not limiting my caution to radiant tubing and construction zones. Here’s my slogan: “Beware of Everything.” Try it. You’ll feel a little anxious, but you’ll be much safer.

A Fog of Words

The city is sitting in a soup of gray fog as I write this post, much like the meaning of these earnest but incomprehensible signs. First up is from a nearby market that prides itself on fair-traded, locally grown, never-met-a-chemical produce:

Whose safety?


Okay, I get that skates inside a store can lead to crashes and possible puncture wounds from organic asparagus. I can also imagine that stepping on a stray artichoke with a bare foot might lead to a deadly collision with a pile of kale or a tub of alfalfa sprouts. But why is a shirt necessary for safety? Perhaps male customers showing off the effects of all those hours with a personal trainer elicit attacks from envious (or lustful) fellow shoppers. And pets? Is the store owner assuming that your poodle, well behaved in your house and on the street, will go berserk and bite you upon seeing the dog biscuit display? What the sign ought to say, I imagine, is that the shirtless, shoeless, pet-ful and skated customers may annoy and, by a long stretch of the imagination, endanger the staff and other shoppers.

The next sign features a word that hasn’t yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary:







The “clean up” part is clear, even without the smear of what I hope is dirt that a passerby added to a strategic spot on the sign. But what does “leash-curb” mean? Tie Fido to the sidewalk edge? Limit (curb) the length of extendable leashes? I’d support that one in a heartbeat, having tripped or leapt over many a twenty-foot tether.  My guess is that the hyphen is a comma that unwisely flattened out and floated up.

One more, for fans of beauty products:



Are the “50+ ingredients” this store “won’t sell” the appositive of “the finest ingredients” cited in the first line? I can just imagine the manager declaring that “this is the best hand cream in the world, so we don’t carry it and never will.” I’m tempted to go into the store with a list of 50+ ingredients I won’t buy.  That is, I would be tempted if I had the tiniest clue about or interest in body-care ingredients. By the way, I inserted a hyphen to link “body” to “care.” Without the hyphen, the “body” may conceivably be attached to “50+,” in which case you can’t shop here if you’re AARP-eligible.

Logical Questions

Signs and labels typically hit you with a message that you can absorb quickly. But this quality comes with a built-in problem; you have to infer the context and the implied or possible extension of what’s actually there. Which brings me to these signs, and the logical questions they inspire. The first is a label on a soda bottle:








Dieters’ delight, right? But why highlight “per 8 fl oz serving”? Do 4 ounces have half the calorie count? If so, what’s half of zero? What about 16 ounces? Does the number jump to, say, 1000 calories because the calories from the first 8 ounces are packed into the next 8, the way a “first thirty days free” subscription suddenly increases to $40/month thereafter? I bought this beverage anyway because I wanted club soda, but I would have been more comfortable with a label reading “no calories because it’s just water and a couple of minerals.” Honesty being the best policy and all.

Next up is a Valentine’s Day special, a bit late:








I understand “cookie cakes,” which I imagine combine two food groups, cookies and cakes, similar to “cronuts,” the food-fad that mixed doughnuts and croissants.  No need to discuss “heart shaped,” which is obvious. What gets me about the sign is the asterisk and its explanation. What on earth does “full legal available” mean?  If the cookie cakes were available until “Feb 21,” would they be totally illegal? Half legal and half illegal? Unavailable?

Last but not least:







At first I thought that “pick-app” was, in fact, an app. And it is! Download this code, and you’ve got a lifetime supply of pick-up lines to throw at prospective romantic partners. (No kidding. Really.) But if the sign refers to that app, how does “delivery” fit in? Does the app deliver the line, so you don’t have to say anything? Or does “delivery” refer to results —  a date or a phone number?

Theories welcome.










Being Patient

Every once in a while a word or phrase snags my mind and pulls my attention away from more important things, like oncoming traffic or melting polar ice caps. This message on a sign in front of a medical pavilion caught my eye and took me away, however briefly, from my worries about the serious illness treated there:










I’ll forgo all the jokes about why “patient” is the appropriate term for someone who waits, patiently or not, to see a doctor. The medical personnel I’ve recently gotten to know have a lot of patients — all of which require a lot of patience. Calmly and competently the doctors, nurses, and staff answer questions, soothe fears, and minister to every ailment, taking as much time as the patient, not the doctor, needs.

So I’ll skip the first word on the sign and focus on the rest of it, which at first offended me. It made me think of a loading dock, where things — inanimate objects, not people — are hoisted onto or off of trucks. How demeaning, I thought. But sick people, to an extent, do take on some characteristics of objects. They’re moved around, often without understanding where or why, because their bodies require attention. The normal dignity of adulthood rightly takes a backseat during illness.  Still, “loading and unloading” seems harsh. No one wants to be viewed as cargo.

But what are the alternatives? My first thought was “pick up and drop off.” That wording is not as bad as “loading and unloading,” but it’s far from perfect. “Pick up and drop off” shows up on laundromats and dry cleaners, UPS stores, and so forth. The phrase still conjures up things, just smaller items like packages instead of larger loaded or unloaded crates. (True, kids are picked up or dropped off, but that fact underscores the loss of independence that adult patients experience.)

Nor do longer phrases work for this sign, because drivers need to comprehend the meaning immediately. For this reason I discarded (dropped off? unloaded?) “Stop here only long enough for patients to get out of or into your car.” By the time a driver comes to the end of that sentence, fifteen cars are lined up behind, horns blaring.  Less common phrases have the same problem. Do you want a driver who’s decoding “disembark” or “alight” instead of flicking the signal lever and easing over to the curb?

Nothing I’ve come up with really works, so I’ll have to live with “loading and unloading.” I’m open to suggestions, though. Write when you have time. I can wait. I’m patient.


A recent article in the New York Times reported that airlines count on “breakage” to save money. The reporter explains that many  airlines issue a voucher for a free checked bag on a future trip when the luggage you stashed for your current trip doesn’t reach you until more than 24 hours after landing. Which raises the question: What does the passenger do in the “acceptable” 24-hour interval? Leave teeth unbrushed, sleep without jammies, recycle underwear?

By offering you a voucher for the future, the airlines appear to hope that (a) you’ll be willing to fly with them again even though you’re in Seattle and your luggage is in Kuala Lumpur and (b) you’ll stop complaining because you have a voucher to pay a fee that they should never have been imposed in the first place. The third possibility is that they hope you’ll forget about the voucher completely, even if you do fly again on the same airline.

This last assumption, according to the Times, is known as “breakage.” The chain of reimbursement comes undone more often than not, and the airline incurs a theoretical but not a real expense. Why? My guess is that most customers forget about the voucher or lose it in the morass of junk mail that piles up on even the neatest kitchen counter.  I saw this sign (unrelated to airline travel) that captures the phenomenon the Times describes:





Sitting in a remote office, the corporate big-wigs of the airline world wear down the customers’ sense of control with late and overcrowded planes, ever-tinier seats and bathrooms, and expensive inedible snacks. Voucher breakage is just the final tug on a fragile chain.

I speculate about another possible motive for breakage. It strikes me that it’s hard to believe that you’ll actually get a bit of justice in this unjust world.  It’s tough to exert yourself to right a wrong that you didn’t create. As you’re watching the baggage carousel spit out suitcase after suitcase without spotting your own, you may have enough energy to act, but you can’t claim and use the voucher then. Three months later, as you contemplate a trip, it’s difficult to summon up the same level of outrage. To use a phrase that applies more and more these days, you may “normalize” bad behavior — which of course then increases.

My advice: resist breakage! Claim what’s due to you — in luggage and in life.