Led Zeppelin was a famous rock band and it still has countless maniac fans in Japan. Its most well-known masterpiece must be “Stairway to Heaven.” The song goes like, “’Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.” I found it very true when I encountered puzzling traffic signs in the United States.
When I first started to drive my car in Klamath Falls, I didn’t have a driver’s license issued by MDV. I only had my international driver’s license based on my Japanese one. This means that I was driving around the town before going to the local MDV office to get the textbook of driving rules. I was basically guessing the meanings of the signs, and assuming that my interpretation was correct as far as I didn’t face any serious trouble.
I carefully watched other drivers to interpret the signs correctly. A large portion of my comprehension, or assumption, was proven to be correct in the process of obtaining the local driver’s license later. But some of the signs showing a word or two were very much tough to me. If the signs simply showed a design pattern, I naturally tried to imagine what it meant. Even if I couldn’t find the meaning, I would have learned it from other drivers at the same situation. When the signs showed only a word or two, my mind tended to rely on the translation of the word. And the translation based on limited English vocabulary was often misled.
The sign, “Merge,” was probably one of the toughest ones. I first encountered it when I was going up the slope to the interstate highway. I do not know exactly how frequently the word, merge, is used in the daily conversation. I presume that the frequency is not quite high. I could imagine two patterns of the usage of the word back then. One is similar to “unite” as in the sentence, “The consultant merged the company with another.” The other one is more like “combine,” as in “This river merges into the Mississippi River.”
General meanings of the traffic signs may be categorized into two groups. One makes the drivers take some necessary actions, such as honk the horn or stop. The other type warns something that drivers should be cautious of. The examples may be “deer” or “pedestrians crossing.”
Actually “merge” does not fall into either category. Drivers can not merge with something. (It is grotesque to envision car drivers merging with or into some unknown object at a certain point of the road.) Or can drivers merge the roads? No, it’s city planners’ or construction workers’ job. And, of course, there is not such a thing called “Merge” which may jump into the road.
I thought it over and over, as my car climbed up the slope. I couldn’t find any way to merge myself into something along the slope. I did not know what to do. So I prepared for some unknown thing called “merge” which may suddenly loom against me. I climbed up the slope and I drove my car into the local interstate with few cars without any problem. There was nothing called “merge” on the road. I was puzzled but the question faded away in myself as I did not see any problem without solving it. I happened to find the meaning of the sign “merge” in the dictionary several months later.
The sign, “Yield,” does show what drivers must do at certain intersections. In this sense, “Yield” does fall into one of the categories that I had in my mind for traffic signs. But the word is not commonly used. Or at least it is not a popular word among the Japanese English learners under the Japanese compulsory education programs. Only usage as a verb I could think of, when I first saw the sign, was that as in the sentence, “I would rather die than yield.” I had opened a few bank accounts before I began to drive my car. I learned the usage like, “a two percent yield,” on a bulletin boards at Savings & Loans offices. However the traffic sign warning something like, “Interest Rate!” obviously does not make any sense, either.
I had no clue to find the meaning of the sign, “yield.” Fortunately, the sign was located at the exit out of the parking lot on the campus. One day, I remained in the parked car and observed what other cars did at the sign. They stopped at the signs when other cars were coming. They simply ran into the road out of the parking lot, when other cars were not coming. I understood. I followed the way others did. No trouble happened to me at the “yield” sign. It was long after I became acceptably fluent in English that I made sure of my interpretation of the sign “yield.”
The traffic sign, “Utility,” caused almost the same problem. The only meaning of the word I knew, when I discovered it, was a basic term used in Economic. It’s even in Econ 101, like “Law of Increase of Marginal Utility.” There is no role-playing lesson in the compulsory English education program in Japan, in which students act as if they had trouble in paying the utility fees.
Apparently the sign, “Utility,” is the name of object which drivers must be careful about, as the word is a noun. Immediately after I saw the sign, I slowed down my car and waited for something to appear. Nothing except for road construction accompanied with a few flag-wavers was what I found. I could not think of the relationship between an economical term and road construction. The relationship remained still unclear even after I learned the most common usage of the word, because I was assuming that the constructions I witnessed were simply repairing the roads themselves. It took a long while until I truly comprehended the meaning of the traffic sign.
When I visited my friends house in an relatively remote residential area, I found another difficult sign, “Bump.” It was in the large parking lot beside the apartment. It was late in the evening and all I could see was what the headlight of the car lit in the dark. I noticed the sign, “Bump,” along the pavement.
“I bumped my head,” a sentence popped out in my head. The sentence I remembered in the high school English class. I was driving my car. And I naturally thought of the bumper of my car, which literally suggests its purpose to bump something. Here again, nothing loomed in my way. Nothing came to bump my car. I slowed down and drove gingerly. Nothing did not seem to jump into my sight. Suddenly a great shock pushed me up off the seat. “Bump!” That was a line of protuberance to make the cars slow down in the parking lot. I understood the meaning of the sign immediately this time.
The most mysterious one of all was “Soft Shoulder.” I for the first time saw it along the road through very much rural area out of a conifer forest. I did know “Stiff Shoulder,” which I often had at the end of every term. But I had never heard of soft shoulders. It was a shiny day. The road was clear and stretched over the hills. I could not sense something weird approaching.
I thought very hard to imagine something with soft shoulder that drivers must be warned upon. Just like stiff shoulders, soft shoulders must belong to some living things, I thought. I thought of Big Foot. The unidentified animal is called so because of its big feet. If there were some animal with soft shoulders, it could be called Soft Shoulder. I felt chilly. I could not visualize any large animal with peculiar soft shoulders. I stepped on the gas pedal and tried to get out of the area with the horrible signs as soon as possible.
It is needles to mention that I got laughed at by my friends when I asked about the mysterious animal.