A Sign of the Times, or What the Heck is that Supposed to Mean?

I guess it’s a result of our increasingly globalised society. Because the same product can be sold in Perth, Phnom Penh or Podgorica, manufacturers eschew putting words on things, instead resorting to symbols or icons. Pick up any electronic gadget or ‘device’ as they are referred to now, and there is no button saying ‘On’ or ‘Off’.
My phone is a smart phone, and touching the screen controls most functions, but it does have three buttons around the outside of the casing. Because it’s my phone, and because I have been using it for a while, I know that one button turns the phone on or off, another mutes the ring tone, and the third adjusts the volume. There is however absolutely nothing on the phone or the buttons to indicate that this is the case. Even the volume control has nothing to show which end to press to make the sound louder, and which to make it softer. I have a fifty/fifty chance of getting it wrong each time. Not life threatening you might think, but certainly potentially annoying or embarrassing. Imagine sitting in a theatre, the audience hushed by some particularly dramatic piece of action, and my phone rings. Actually mine wouldn’t, because I’m particularly careful to turn it off in those situations, but plenty don’t, and if the unfortunate individual hit the wrong end of the volume control the ringing could just get louder and louder. How hard would it be to have a plus or minus sign on the button, or up and down arrows?
The screen of any electronic device is littered with little symbols whose meaning we are supposed to divine without being told. Some are reasonably apparent; the battery, which becomes emptier as the charge reduces is simple. Others much less so. In some cases the origin of these symbols has become lost in the mists of time even in the last twenty years or so. Consider the ‘Save’ icon which is universal. It actually represents a floppy disk, who remembers what they were? Anybody under 15 has probably never seen one. In years to come we will be explaining:
‘Well, when computers were first used, to save a document you would have a flat piece of plastic with a hole in the middle, and you put it in the slot in front of the computer and it went round and round and then your document would be on it. And if you wanted to get the document back again you got the disk out of your drawer and put it back in the slot.’
And the person will look at us blankly and consult their watch, which now holds more information than a whole truckful of floppy discs ever could.
As for emoticons, or the little smiley faces with which some people litter their emails and messages, I can see that they have their uses. They add emotion or mood to the text, which can otherwise be missing. In fact, their usefulness was recognised long before computers, although they were not in common use. An American magazine published four different emoticons in 1881, all made up of standard punctuation symbols. My favourite though is a suggestion by Ambrose Bierce in 1912 of a symbol for cachinnation, or an outburst of involuntary laughter. Ambrose proposed a simple bracket turned on its side representing a smiley mouth – which would have been easily achieved by a typesetter turning the piece of type, but not easy on a computer keyboard, which is why you have to turn your head sideways to see the smile :-).
Of course, writers have been conveying their emotions and moods for centuries without resorting to emoticons, but it often takes a lot more words, and who has time or patience to type any more than the basics on a phone. A picture, or emoticon, may not always be worth a thousand words, but it can convey quite a few. Hopefully you have selected the appropriate emoticon for your purpose – a lot of them seem to look very similar.
Instead of ‘On’ and ‘Off’, the accepted signs seem to be a circle and a dash. Which is which? I have read that there is a rational explanation behind this, and if you are an electrical engineer you probably know what it is. For the other 99% of the population it is again a matter of guesswork. With most equipment thankfully it’s quite obvious whether it is turned on or off, but in some cases it’s impossible to know whether the thing is not working just because you haven’t turned it on yet, or because it is broken.
For those of us who aren’t electrical engineers, it seems that the convention behind the on and off symbols is fairly well established, the reason behind them not so. It is either from electrical circuit drawings, where the single line represents the current flowing, and the circle represents an interruption, therefore no current. Or it is from binary language, where possibly 0 represents nothing and 1 represents something. At least, that’s my rudimentary understanding; there is considerable debate online about it, so maybe there is no clear origin.
I have strong feelings about these symbols, for one very good reason. I have a petrol brush cutter, and every time I go to use it there is difficulty starting it. Not unusual with two stroke engines I believe, but frustrating nonetheless. However, on one occasion I had spent some considerable time pulling the cord, pumping the fuel, checking the spark plug, and eventually came to the last resort, reading the instructions. I had left this to last because I knew the instructions were useless. I discovered that when I first bought the machine and was trying to put it together. The booklet was full of drawings – those pesky signs again – with very few words to explain them. Another concession to the fact that not everybody who was going to buy the machine could be expected to speak English, the instructions were obviously designed for somebody who didn’t speak English, but already knew how to assemble a brush cutter.
In this case though, the instructions were clear. Whereas I had assumed that the 0 on the power switch stood for ‘On’, that was not the case. The 0 stands for ‘Off’ – I had been trying to start the thing all that time when it was switched off. I now have a mnemonic to help me remember. Both ‘On’ and ‘Off’ start with O, so that’s not much help, except I now know that ‘effing O stands for OFF!’.

Julie Livingstone 2015


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