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Funny English signs worldwide

Publication Date : 10-10-2012


As English has become a major international language, English signboards and directions are everywhere these days. Sometimes due to the difficulty of English usages and other times due to cultural differences, however, mistakes in English signs and directions can be found all over the world. Recently, Theresa Oh, who speaks fluent English, showed me a list of funny English signs and directions that can be found worldwide. All of them were quite amusing and hilarious, exhibiting language barriers and cultural misunderstandings.

There are mistakes that arise from insufficient knowledge of English usages and slang. In an Acapulco hotel, for example, there is a sign which says, “The manager has personally passed all the water served here.” According to this sign, all the hotel guests have to drink the manager’s urine, because “pass water” means “urinate.” Thus the sign should have been written: “The manager personally inspected all the water served here.”

On a faucet in a Finnish restroom is a sign, “To stop the drip, turn cock to right.” Since “cock” is a slang word for a man’s genitals, it becomes an embarrassing sign, especially for women. Once at a wedding ceremony in Seoul, I heard the man who was presiding over the marriage tell the bride and the groom: “Men are like a cock and women a hen.” Since the man was a professor of English, he used the English word, “cock,” and pronounced it solemnly in public. Nobody laughed, not realizing the connotation of the word, “cock.” But it would have been much better if he had said “rooster” instead.

According to the aforementioned list, other hilarious examples include an advertisement for donkey rides in Thailand: “Would you like to ride on your own ass?” Perhaps the person who wrote it did not know that “ass” also means “butt.” Outside a dress shop in Paris is a sign which says, “Dresses for street walking.” One can guess the sign means “Outdoor dresses,” but it ends up being a funny sign, because “street walking” means “prostituting.” At a Hong Kong dress shop, there is a sign, “Ladies have fits upstairs.” Since “fit” also means “spasm” or “convulsion,” the sign becomes a weird one.

Some mistakes stem from unawareness of correct English usage. In a Japanese hotel, there is a tempting sign men cannot possibly resist: “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.” Grammatically, it seems all right and yet, you should be careful when using the expression, “take advantage of” with reference to a woman. A laundry in Rome has a sign which writes, “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.” A Bangkok laundry also displays a similar sign, “Drop your trousers here for best results.” A Tokyo bar has another humorous sign, “Special cocktails for the ladies with nuts,” perhaps not realising that “nuts” is another slang word for a man’s genitals.

Other inadvertently witty signs include the one found in the office of a Roman doctor: “Specialist in women and other diseases.” It is a wonder how the doctor has survived feminists’ harsh criticism. A Norwegian cocktail bar shows a weird sign: “Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.” In the window of a Swedish furrier, there is a gross sign: “Fur coats made for ladies from their own skin.” In a Czech tourist agency one finds an amusing sign which says, “Take one of our horse-driven city tours - we guarantee no miscarriages.” In a Budapest zoo, you can find the sign, “Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.” Poor guard!

In addition, there are also signs using the wrong words. In an advertisement by a Hong Kong dentist, there is a terrifying phrase: “Teeth extracted by the latest methodists.” A Japanese guidebook about using a hotel air conditioner has the following confusing, incorrectly-spelled instructions: “Cooles and Heates: If you want just condition of warm in your woom, please control yourself.”

There are some ghastly signs that make us laugh. For example, The Soviet Weekly once carried the following statement: “There will be a Moscow exhibition of Arts by 15,000 Soviet Republic painters and sculptors. These were executed over the past two years.” A similar example is the notice that is posted in a Rhodes tailor shop, “Order your summer suits. Because of big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.” Non-native speakers, who are not familiar with the usage of “execute,” often make that kind of mistake.

Needless to say, Korea, too, has numerous English signs which are either awkward or wrong. Wrong English signs sometimes inspire pleasant, harmless laughter, but oftentimes they inflict serious misunderstandings. We cannot just laugh about those mistakes and forget them. We need to have all the English signs and directions proofread by a native speaker of English.

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.


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