Signs of the times

I like to read signs. Sometimes they make me laugh, other times they make me shake my head.

Driving into Kenora, my wife Dianne and I saw a sign that read “Hilly Lake.” Now, I’m not a physicist, or a hydrologist, or whatever the appropriate science is, but I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as a hilly lake. The wind might stir up some waves from time to time, but …

On Manitoulin Island, we saw a sign for “Big Lake.” Aside from the lack of imagination, it struck me as a misnomer, given that it isn’t even the largest lake on the island. Never mind the fact that Manitoulin Island is itself situated on the fifth-largest freshwater lake in the world. Maybe it was named after Mr. Big.

In the small town of Naramata, in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, a chalkboard sign outside a pizza place read, “Open @ 4ish, Pretty much every day.” It made me smile. I found it completely appropriate to the laid-back attitude of the town, even if not particularly helpful. Is today one of the days it’s open? And what does it depend on? And what does 4ish mean, exactly? I suspect it never opens precisely at 4 o’clock, but how flexible timewise is the “ish”? Twenty minutes, an hour?

Translated signs can be a source of amusement. In a town called Evora in Portugal, an outdoor restaurant had a sign advertising petiscos (tapas in Spanish). The English translation read, “Something for nibble.” We just had to go in and get a table. I thought the expression was perfect, and when we have guests over, I like to ask if they’d like “something for nibble.”

Some signs are informative: street signs, signs for parks or buildings, often named after a well-known person or historical figure. Of course, you might have to Google the name to know who the sign refers to. In L’Orignal, signs have been installed in front of a number of historic homes and buildings, providing information about when they were built, who owned them, etc. It makes for a nice walking tour.

­­­There are signs that get my dander up. As a former copy editor, the misplacement of apostrophes drives me crazy, whether the sign is at the top of someone’s driveway or naming a commercial property. Shouldn’t Tim Hortons be Tim Horton’s? I’d have to check what the plural possessive for Demers is, but it’s certainly not Demer’s. I think sign-makers should be familiar with basic grammar.

I once worked in a fishing tackle store and the owner had a sign made to tell people that we sold bait and fishing licences. After the sign was made, he noticed that it only advertised live bait, so he had the sign-maker insert a reference to lures and flies, etc. This was the result:

Live Bait and



Prompting, of course, smart alecs asking for artificial licences.

I am always confused by the signs people put in the back window of their vehicles that read “Baby on board.” What am I supposed to do with that information? I was thinking of playing bumper cars because they’re driving too slowly, but given that there’s a baby on board, maybe I shouldn’t.

The signs that I find equally pointless at times, irritating at others, are those that read “Private Property.” I can understand it when such a sign is posted along a large rural property bordering a road, maybe to keep hunters or hikers or snowmobilers out. But at the top of a driveway? Such a sign tells me one of two things. Either the property owner thinks passersby are a bit thick and may not comprehend that the 10-metre driveway with the garage at the end is not the turn-off leading to the highway. Or worse, it’s a sign of hostility, even paranoia. Better not turn around in that driveway.

Dianne and I often go hiking or snowshoeing on Mount Rigaud, and along the sides of the trails there are a few “Private Property” signs. I’m going out on a limb here by suggesting that hikers and snowshoers and cross-country skiers don’t typically fit the profile of home invaders. I could be wrong. But I’m tempted to have some “Public Property” signs made up and post them along the trail, my way of saying, everyone’s welcome to enjoy a walk, a snowshoe, or ski along this trail through the woods.

How does the song go? “Signs, signs, everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery, messing my mind.”

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Mike Gasher

Mike Gasher is a former newspaper reporter and editor and taught for two decades as a journalism professor at Concordia University in Montreal. He has published several books and academic articles on journalism and the media, including the textbook Media and Communication in Canada. Now retired, he lives in L'Orignal.

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