Signs Are Funny, But One Slipped Up


Every morning on the way to the office, I pass three roadside message boards.

Many days, these terse phrases amuse me and usually provide a little lift before I start another day of work. I often marvel at how much meaning can be derived from just a few words.

"Run Turkey Run," warned the Carroll County Veterinary Clinic's sign the week prior to Thanksgiving.

I also chuckled when the changeable Jiffy Mart sign at the intersection of Route 140 and Suffolk Road proclaimed, "If today were a fish, I'd throw it back."

Ironically, on the first day I noticed the new message, its immediate meaning seemed totally inappropriate. The sky was a bright blue and the air was clear of humidity and haze. While chilly, the temperature was comfortable for a mid-November morn. If the sign was referring to the weather, it missed the mark.

As I sped by the sign, I thought that possibly the person who had put it up wasn't really commenting on the weather but on his or her psychological state. The person may have been in a deep, dark mood that even the strong sunlight of a crisp fall day could not penetrate.

By the next morning, the weather fit the message. The sky was gray, the air damp and my mood had turned gloomy. I marveled at how within 24 hours, the message had become so much more insightful.

Before I turn off Route 140, I always make it a habit to see what message The Church of the Open Door has posted on its large two-sided sign. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the sign said, "If your ancestors hung in trees, it must have been by the neck."

The message gave me pause. While I understood its thrust was to condemn evolution as an explanation of how life on earth was created, I couldn't help but think the sign was also referring to the questionable ancestry of people who had been lynched.

When I called the Rev. Shelton L. Smith, the church's pastor, he assured me the sign was directed at condemning evolution.

No, there wasn't any reference to people being lynched, he said. "We just wanted to get our point across in a humorous way," Mr. Smith said.

Since fundamentalist Christians reject evolution and believe the biblical account of creation, the only people whose ancestors spent time in trees had to be those with antecedents who dangled in nooses.

Obviously, the focus of the message is the play on the word "hung." According to the simplified version of evolution, modern man is a descendant of primates who lived -- or in modern parlance, "hung around" -- in trees many eons ago. Monkeys also hang in trees from their tails. In order to make the point that people's ancestors were not long-tailed monkeys, the saying also plays on the word "neck." The only way our ancestors could hang in trees was by their necks.

Mr. Smith didn't realize that the clever saying also could be interpreted as a terrible racial slur against black families who have ancestors who were lynched.

The Church of the Open Door's intention was to deride evolution, not to denigrate black people. Unfortunately, in the context of American history and its sorry legacy of racism and lynching, it is all too easy to read the mean-spirited, racially laden interpretation into the message.

Words are very powerful tools that carry a lot of punch when properly used. But we have also reached a point where people can read all sorts of meaning into inoffensive words.

Proponents of "politically correct" language -- designed to be sensitive to the feelings of all types of groups -- have made normal discourse an exercise in walking on eggshells.

The language Gestapo would have us replace the words "disabled" or "handicapped" with the insipid phrase "physically challenged," "mailman" with "letter carrier" or "man-made" with "synthetic" and "artificial."

This kind of language cleansing is not taking place just at the fringes. The reporters and editors at The Los Angeles Times, owned by the same corporation as The Baltimore Sun, recently received a 19-page booklet outlining a number of unacceptable terms, such as "Dutch treat," "co-ed," "ghetto," "hillbilly" and "inner city."

Fortunately, the newspaper has not gone as far as some feminist publications which now consider the preferred spelling of woman to be "womyn" (so as not to include the letters "m-a-n.")

The problem with all this microscopic examination of our language is that it invariably wrings the life out of our speech and writing. As we read more and more meaning into some of the most common words, we resort to trite, tired and unexpressive language to convey our thoughts.

Carried to its extreme, meaningless bureaucratic jargon replaces cogent and convincing words. Most of us, fortunately, can see through these efforts. Members of the Reagan administration were unsuccessful in trying to take the sting out of a proposed tax increase by calling it a "revenue enhancer." In time, we will tire of politically correct language because it is an impediment to understanding. Deft use of language is an art that is not yet lost.

Roadside signs, in fact, can be surprisingly fertile ground for such expression. One of the best recent examples that comes to mind was a question that The Church of the Open Door posed on its message board a few months ago:

"If you had everything you wanted," the sign asked, "where would you put it?"

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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