Hidden meanings

Do you remember being told at some stage during your early training that the meaning isn’t necessarily in the words? Remember – all that stuff about the meaning coming from the words in a given context, with a given speaker and interlocutor, etc.  All that stuff that we learn to get through the exam and so qualify as TEFL professionals, then never really give a second thought to.

Well, the other day I was in England again. I haven’t lived there for over 30 years, so now when I go back I’m a foreigner, or at least it feels that way at times. There are downsides to this, but there are upsides, too. One of the upsides is the way that prolonged absence allows me to see Britain the way many of my learners do (which at times is quite a revealing experience).

The other day, as I was saying, I was back in the UK, back in my native and much-loved Northumberland, when I saw this:

No fly tipping no context

Why should I want to tip flies, I pondered for a while? And how many flies do I need to be accused of ‘tipping’?

The sign was in the middle of a car park next to a small marina, so there was a bit of context, but try as I might I couldn’t work out what it was eaxctly that the local council didn’t want me to do. Later the same day, however, I came across this in a car park in the delightful county town of Alnwick (think Harry Potter and castles) :

No fly tipping context

Oh I get it! (I think.) But wouldn’t it have been easier to say something like ‘Don’t dump your rubbish here.’ Or would that not have sounded serious enough? Childish, instead of adult and official.

Funnily enough, by the sign in the first car park, they’d pathed the ground with short reflections that had been made by local school kids. Here’s one that really got to me, and that is not unlike like the first ‘fly tipping’ sign, in the sense that it leaves you wondering about its meaning:

The sea inside us

Amazing what learners can do when you let them loose on language!