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Wordplay: Wit and Wisdom in Public Spaces

by Joyce McGreevy on August 16, 2016

A hair salon in Glasgow, Scotland typifies the wit and wordplay of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

Hair-salon puns, like this one in Glasgow, Scotland, are permanent highlights of signage.
© Joyce McGreevy

Reading the Language of Signs Worldwide

Maybe it’s a sign, you think. You mean that literally. It’s Day 1 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and you’re staring at a wall of words that may signify the name of the street. Or a local ordinance. Or the route to Romania.

You know this much: it’s definitely in Cyrillic. Suddenly, you’re back in the pre-literacy of early childhood, experiencing the world as a dense forest of language whose mysteries you’re not yet able to penetrate.

Oh, I see: Signs are an indispensable element of our public spaces.

Showing Obvious Signs

Some signs require no language at all to make their messages clear. Glasgow University uses creative visuals to dish up directions to the student dining hall.

A sign for Glasgow University's student dining hall shows the wit of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

At Glasgow University, wordless signage offers a running commentary.
© Joyce McGreevy

Some wordless signs are obvious. Very, very obvious. At one of Glasgow’s most popular attractions, The Lighthouse, this sign helps get visitors where they, ah,  need to go.

A sign at The Lighthouse, Glasgow, Scotland shows how wordless signage complements wordplay signage in public spaces.Image © Joyce McGreevy

This is not the universal symbol for a Scottish jig.
© Joyce McGreevy

Adorable  Doors

Other signs are Austen-tacious. Planning to visit the city of Bath, England? Simply trust your own sense and sensibility when choosing a loo.

A sign at the Jane Austen Centre, Bath, England, reflects the wit and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

“She had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.”

A Mr Darcy sign at the Jane Austen Centre, Bath, England, reflects the wit, wisdom, and wordplay of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

“I’d say this qualifies.” 
© both images by Joyce McGreevy

Please Do Not Read This Sign

Some signs get right to the point. They are down-to-earth so you won’t end up down-to-earth in the worst possible way. Still, getting close enough to read this warning in Co. Clare, Ireland, could defeat the purpose.

A danger sign in Lahinch, Ireland lends drama to the wit and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

An edgy danger sign high above Lahinch, Ireland.
© Joyce McGreevy

After all, isn’t the whole point of such signs to keep you from getting to this point?

A rollercoaster sign in Iowa reflects the wordplay, wit, and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Pat Hawks

A rollercoaster sign in Iowa generates “Likes” from some, “Yikes!” from others.
The Point of No Return” by Pat Hawks is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

What’s Your Mirth Sign?

Some shop window signs are all about the jokes. Like the bakery chalkboard that asks, “Pilates? Don’t you mean pie and lattes?” Or the marquee  that drily declares “If it’s in stock, we have it!”

Or this deli sign call-to-action: “Ban pre-shredded cheese. Make America grate again!”

Shop window signage in Ireland reflects wordplay, wit, and wisdom. Image © Joyce McGreevy

Truth in advertising . . .
© Joyce McGreevy

Shop window signage for beer in Ireland typifies the wordplay, wit, and wisdom to be found in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

. . . Irish style.
© Joyce McGreevy

 

Uniquely British Signs

In London, the very quest for precision can lead to confusion. For instance, in the Underground, Way Out doesn’t mean “Exit,” but the path toward the exit.

One day I watched as a small group of people stood around a trash can attempting to decode the label, Residual Waste Only.

“Isn’t all waste, by definition, residual?” inquired one.

“Indeed, but this bin is for waste that’s left over after one has sorted out all the other waste,” clarified another.

“Ah, so it’s truly residual,” averred a third.

“Precisely.”

I can hardly wait to see the dramatization on BBC.

My favorite British signs are often snarky. This one puts a different spin on being calm and “carrying on.”

A sign in London about the Little Book of Calm shows the wordplay, wit, and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

It’s a hardback life.
© Joyce McGreevy

Signs of the Times

Some signs shed light on old sayings. At Senglea Harbor, Malta, benches are labeled with sailors’ proverbs, some in English, some in Maltese.

A sailors' proverb on a bench in Senglea, Malta typifies the wordplay, wit, and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

A bench in Malta sums up my affection for the town of Senglea.
© Joyce McGreevy

A view of the Mediterranean Sea is en route to Malta, where signage reflects wordplay, wit and wisdom in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

What, no For Sail sign? En route to Malta.
© Joyce McGreevy

Signs to Bookmark

Some literary signs invite us to go by the book. In Dublin, Ireland, well-trodden pavement plaques let you follow in the path of the fictional Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Now that’s a footnote.

A pavement sign in Dublin, Ireland commemorating James Joyce's Ulysses reflects the wordplay, wit, and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

A street-smart sign in Dublin, Ireland.
© Joyce McGreevy

In Paris, signage, like everything else, becomes art. Fellow OIC Moments blogger Meredith Mullins discovered a creative French take on literature  in the Palais Royal gardens.

Artist Michel Goulet has transformed castoff iron chairs into sites for relaxation and versification. Engraved with lines of poetry, the chairs feature ports that let you plug in your earbuds and listen as famous French actors read aloud the complete poem.

In short, why settle for la vie en prose?

A poetry chair created by Michel Goulet for the Palais Royal gardens, Paris, honors Emily Dickinson and shows the wordplay, wit, and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Meredith Mullins

“How good — to be Alive!/ How infinite — to be.”
© Meredith Mullins

A poetry chair by Michel Goulet at the Palais Royal, Paris honors Guillaume Apollinaire and reflects the wordplay, wit, and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Meredith Mullins

“Let night come on bells end the day/ The days go by me still I stay.”
(Translation, poet Richard Wilbur)
© Meredith Mullins

Good Signs

Some signs inspire us to do good. At the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, a sign for an exhibition by New York-based artist Jim Hodges invites literal and figurative reflection.

A sign at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles reflects the wordplay, wit, and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

In Los Angeles, simple words herald a big idea.
© Joyce McGreevy

Signs on the walls of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow offer fresh perspective on vision itself.

A quotation on the wall of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland reflects the wordplay, wit, and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

Pissarro’s “Oh, I see” moment, on view in Glasgow.
© Joyce McGreevy

Signs of Life

Finally, some signs are simply for the birds! Protecting a nest egg is second nature to the denizens of Glebe Gardens in Baltimore, Ireland.

A handmade sign on a mailbox in Baltimore, Ireland, shows the wordplay, wit, and wisdom of signage in public spaces. Image © Joyce McGreevy

A mailbox turns birdhouse for a special delivery.
© Joyce McGreevy

 

So what’s your (favorite) sign? Where have you found wit and wisdom in public spaces?

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.

 

 
Comments:

9 thoughts on “Wordplay: Wit and Wisdom in Public Spaces

  1. I liked this one in L.A. Though I do secretly like selfies. I like doing selfies where you make it look like you’re holding a building or something. Good times.

  2. That was a fun one! It’s long struck me as curious how hair salons seem to have a particular affinity for wordplay. Here’s one of my favorites.

  3. Dear Joyce,
    I LOVE this post. The messages are all memorable and a sign (no pun intended) that the world still has a sense of humor and a desire to make art more visible in our daily life.

    But … I have to say I like “Make America grate again.” the best.

    Thank you!

    Meredith

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