Show me a sign – but tell me what it means

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I’ve often wondered how visitors from other cultures – or people ten, twenty or fifty years from now -  make sense of the words, phrases and icons that seem so familiar to us. Sometimes I wonder how they will interpret and possibly understand cliches, pictures or emojis that may be left behind in print and posted in public spaces. I’m guessing that the common assumption might be that those marks and images preserved must be somehow special, if not sacred.

As you look around your neighborhood or your region, how do you think that visitors from the future will make sense of the signs, rules, warnings and instructions that seem so obvious now?

Some signs have words, but many do not. There is a shared base of knowledge required to make sense of the signs we see – and perhaps ignore – almost every day.

But someday that base of knowledge will be gone. After the zombie apocalypse, the nuclear holocaust or the seemingly inevitable collapse of literacy and common sense, how do you think archivists and anthropologists from another planet or a distant time will interpret these signs?

Here are some of my guesses as to what these signs might mean to the average person who has never seen them before…


Regarding this sign, the top symbol obviously refers to a two-wheeled vehicle within a larger one-wheeled vehicle. Since no rider is shown, it must be giving proper parking instructions. A literal interpretation might be something like “when parking your two-wheeled vehicle, be sure to park it with both wheels down”.

The middle sign puzzles me even now. I am not a dog-owner right now, but I have never seen any creature with a diagonal flat head and three legs before.

And is that a giant test-tube in hand of the round-headed  two-legged companion?

Is it my imagination, or is the arm holding the object longer than the other?

Is that round-headed being facing us or walking away?

Is that a soft container holding a snack for the dog? Or a test tube for a medical sample?

As much as it look like a stick, I am assuming that the line between them is a leash, but who is leading whom?

Even now, when I see a human and a canine walking together, I have to wonder who is in charge.

In this image, the three-legged creature with the flat head looks far more focussed, if not in control of the situation. The shoulder of the round-headed being is obviously dislocated.

The bottom image puzzles me even now.

Is this person going up? Or down? Eagerly climbing  or falling in a panic? Celebrating, reaching or preparing for take-off?

Are the little pieces in the bottom half designating tiny carnivores attacking the legs since the feet are already apparently gone?

Is the person sliding down the middle bar and waving to someone in the distance?

Is the large chunk of the bottom sector a volcano erupting and spewing out pieces  – or even people?

Is it a cannon shooting out the person? Or a giant’s vacuum cleaner sucking him in?

Is this a pictorial creation story since it is the foundation of those icons above it?

Is the person landing or taking off?

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford

Throwing dice with the ducks 

The sign here, based on the expression of the duck, is quite serious. The hand is obviously rolling dice (what game uses three dice?) Is the duck questioning the legitimacy of the dice?

The duck is on the verge of leaving its area – and does not look very happy. Perhaps the moral of this sign is that you better not cheat at dice or cards when you gamble with the ducks in T-town.

After all, ducks might look relatively harmless, but have you noticed that you only see them in groups?

These homeless panhandlers hang out at our parks and roam our streets at night.

These duck gangs use their own street jargon and have proven difficult for local authorities to monitor.

Ducks and raccoons have been known to have brawls over territory. Those masked marauders are even more dangerous and unpredictable.

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford

If I could walk on water…

This sign is obviously a reminder to keep your dog on a leash (and clean up after it) as you take your daily walk across the bay.

Photos were all taken within the Metro Parks of Tacoma, by Morf Morford