Outrage at signage

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Outrage at signage

Ahoy, world. Yes, it’s been a while. I do recognise that this post follows on from the last one I wrote, where I said ‘It’s been a while’… While some of you might be thinking, ‘There’s a pattern emerging here’, I’d like to be pedantic and point out that 2 times does not a pattern make.

I’ll get back to all the stuff that’s been happening… soon. But, in the meantime, here’s a mild ranticle on one of the many words that vex me.

Some words just make me mad. Generally, it’s not their fault. ‘Pre-existing’ can’t help that it’s a malformed, redundant worm of a word. ‘Broadcasted’ is just a bit goofy, and still doesn’t really get why it’s superfluous. ‘Orientate’ never even had a chance to get its bearings; from the moment it appeared, critics were furiously smacking it down.

But ‘signage’, no, that’s a pretentious, over-privileged little snot of a word. Little Signage went to an elite school; its parents had bumper stickers letting everyone know that their child was a member of the rowing team, and that they were proud. On the weekend, for breakfast, they’d eat poached eggs served off the back of a swan.

We have a lovely simple word that refers to more than one sign: signs. Why it was necessary to coin a mass noun for signs, I’m not sure. Try it with something else, and it feels pretty silly:

  • Jim, do we have the deskage installed in the new office yet?
  • You know, these shelves really need more bookage.
  • I’m minding my aunt’s dogage for the weekend.

To me, ‘signage’ feels kind of like ‘agreeance’—a word someone uses when they’re trying to sound formal, but they’re actually using a word… that is actually not a word. (If you’ve landed here from Google, you should know ‘agreement’ is the word you’re looking for.)

I’m generally a fan of obscure word formations. I have a friend who’s trying—one person at a time—to get ‘toothbri’ to take off as the plural of toothbrush. I support this, and try to show my support by working his preferred plural into conversations we have. This is hard to do, as I don’t naturally have much case to talk about toothbrushes; sorry, toothbri!

But back to signage…

If you look at the Google N-Gram below, you can see that this word simply didn’t exist for a long time. There were a couple of usage murmurs in 1850, 1870, and around 1900, which were rightly quashed by a community who just said, ‘No, that word is simply ridiculous!’ But around 1965, somebody influential must have published a book with it in it. Then, like a middle-aged man’s midriff, it spread.

N-Gram of 'signage' showing usage rising sharply from early 60s

So, which words make you think dark thoughts? Let us know in the comments, along with Minnie, who has already threatened to comment on this post and tell me how wrong I am.


By |2017-05-19T08:20:27+00:00June 15th, 2016|Etymology, Personal|8 Comments

About the Author:

Writer, editor, musician, plain English evangelist, content ninja for hire, and general web guy, Rory does lots of things, when he has time...


  1. Melanie S June 15, 2016 at 11.57am - Reply

    I HATE agreeance. I also hate oversight: Donald has oversight of the project. No! He is overseeing the project. An oversight is a mistake – you forgot something. Hopefully Donald doesn’t forget the project.

    • Rory June 15, 2016 at 5.11pm - Reply

      Oh, yes, indeed. And then sometimes it’s turned into a verb. We’re oversighting the project.

      Hell. Handbasket.

  2. Kevin Kim (@bighominid) June 16, 2016 at 1.39am - Reply

    I’d been noticing a distinct lack of Roryage on Twitter, and for whatever reason, your blog’s updates are no longer coming up on my blog’s RSS feed, so I decided to pay your blog a visit to look for signage of life(age).

    As for this:

    “a word someone uses when they’re trying to sound formal, but they’re actually using a word… that is actually not a word”

    I sympathize, assuming I understand you correctly. You’re talking about annoying words that actually are legitimate words, but that sound as though they shouldn’t be allowed, yes? In that case, I’m annoyed by words like “kerfluffle,” with the extra “L” in it: it’s normally “kerfuffle”—”FUFF,” not “FLUFF.” “Kerfluffle” sounds, to me, as though someone had misheard or misread “kerfuffle,” and somehow that earworm went epidemic, spreading from one community of inbreds to another until it had gained enough traction among three-nostriled freaks to acquire a legitimacy of its own. Another annoyance is the pronunciation of “kibosh” (as in the phrase “put the kibosh on,” i.e., to end) as if it rhymed with “thigh wash.” I know this is a legitimate pronunciation, but most of the time, I hear it as “kih-BAAHSH,” which is how God intended it.

    I’ve typed in some HTML in this comment to try to create some hard returns. There’s no preview function, so I’ll just hit “post” and see what happens.

  3. Kevin Kim (@bighominid) June 16, 2016 at 1.42am - Reply

    Didn’t work, I see: there are no spaces between paragraphs. But at least the HTML tags are invisible!

    • Rory June 16, 2016 at 5.49am - Reply

      Sorry, Kevin, I need to fix this… Have tried, but it requires the powers of a bigger geek than me. (Luckily, I know a few!) I suspect it has something to do with the Disqus CSS conflicting with the site’s.

  4. Minnie June 16, 2016 at 10.06pm - Reply

    Dear Rory. FYI—’signage’ is not an overprivileged snot of a word. It is a hardworking trooper of a word that gets up at 3:30am to do good works on the 364 days of the year that Santa is asleep. Signage is a collective. It is bigger than a sign. And bigger than Lots of Signs. It has herded the cats, been reviewed, and is about to herd more cats. It does not speak to ‘agreeance’, and has previously reached a truce with ‘pre-existing’. Don’t even get it started on ‘orientate’. Just in case we lose-ate our brainage.

  5. Kevin Kim (@bighominid) June 16, 2016 at 11.59pm - Reply

    I ought “orientate” was a UK-English way of saying “orient,” the way we Yanks do. No? In Oz, do you say someone is “disoriented” or “disorientated”?
    I’m not a big fan of adding extra syllables to words… except when I am. Like when we say “cynical” in English, but it’s “cynique” (2 syllables, “see-neek”) in French. I like the English way better. Besides, the French, for all their syllable-lopping, aren’t consistent in how they handle adjectives: “cynical” may be “cynique,” but “musical” is still “musical” in French, albeit with a hoity-toity Frenchie pronunciation.
    In other news… US comedian Pauly Shore (who isn’t very funny) loved adding “-age” to all sorts of words: money became “fundage,” for example. “Signage” strikes me as tame by comparison. I’m OK with it.

    • Rory June 17, 2016 at 7.15pm - Reply

      Both are actually legitimate, though ‘orient’ is preferred—especially by Minnie. She gets a little cross when people say ‘orientate’. It’s one of those words that by usage is legitimised… Kind of like how ‘literally’ now has another dictionary definition of ‘figuratively’…
      I’m sure I read that, originally, ‘orientate’ referred specifically to the aligning of a church so that it faced a certain direction… I can’t find this reference at the moment with a lacklustre Google search… But I’m sure it is a thing. 🙂
      Today, I was reminded of a ‘word’ that literally (literal literally!) makes me grind my teeth: internet slang ‘prolly’ for ‘probably’. Speaking of extra syllables, I remember a Korean teacher I knew who added an extra one to ‘probably’, making it ‘probobably’.
      That’s kind of fun to say 🙂

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