Do you know Umberto Eco? No? Well, apart from being a well-known Italian writer, he is also a distinguished University Professor. His subject is «semiotics». Now, I think I understand what that means but I recently tried to read a book on the subject and confess to getting lost very early on. All I know is that semiotics is the science of signs and that's a pretty wide topic.
The learned professor's name came into my mind the other week when we went on a three-week holiday by car through France. My wife is if you like the semiotics expert because she interprets the maps and I simply drive. But I also have plenty of signs to read on the way. Some are purely illustrative like that of falling stones and rocks or the one I got to know really well through the Pyrenees — the bend in the road. And you have to take those bends really seriously if you want to end your holiday in one piece.
The most dramatic is that of the leaping stag. Fortunately I had no close encounters with any of those! Another favourite at this time of the year is a drawing of stones flying up from the wheel of the car because the road has just been resurfaced. We call these «loose chippings». I wonder why the road repairers don't use steamrollers more often so that the stones aren't loose. Still I did my bit throughout my 3,000-mile trip by flattening a few here and there.
Of course in my case I'm increasing my knowledge of French because many of the signs are written. What can be most alarming is reading a sign where you don't know the meaning of a crucial word and you feel you ought to be taking some kind of evasive action. There was one sign that puzzled us for ages and it kept on appearing. In desperation we pulled into the side and looked the word up in the dictionary and discovered that it meant that there was a possibility of traffic jams.
Apart from the substantial figure of Signor Eco coming into my mind as I drove through the French countryside I also started to ponder the use of expressions in English that have their origins in the means by which we travel from place to place. I've chosen six to show what I mean. An expression that describes being aware of what is happening in the world and the way things work in society is street credibility (sometimes abbreviated to «street cred»). In other words if you possess «street cred», you are well informed about contemporary life. Politicians who as we say «sit on the fence» and don't seem to hold convictions one way or the other are said to be middle of the road. Incidentally this position is not recommended when you are driving although I did meet one or two the other week. Sometimes you come across a topic, a place, an experience that is precisely something you enjoy and know well.
When this happens, you say: «This is right up my street.» Over the last few years there have been several unpleasant incidents where motorists have lost their temper and done deliberate damage to other motorists' cars or even done harm to the motorists themselves. This has become known as «road rage» and when people lose control on a plane this has been called air rage. If you feel that things are getting on top of you and you want to scream then you could be going round the bend. There are times too when you have you make serious decisions about what to do next in life and then you are said to be at a crossroads.
After a long drive you need a long sleep and one night I had a dream — well more of a nightmare. I was driving in the car and it was pouring with rain when suddenly I saw a group of road signs telling me that a stag was about to jump out, the car could turn over on a slippery road, there was a very sharp bend, loose chippings were on the road, rocks would fall down on to the road and there was only room for one car to pass. I slowed down clutching the steering wheel in panic and — woke up. The following day we stayed put and left the car in the car park and thought we'd go for a country walk. There was only one sign at the start of the walk and it informed us that it would take about 5 hours. It was then that I saw a sign that was right up my street. It had two words «open» and «bar».
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: Read the signs!