I was trying to determine why I chose to highlight poor English in Korean signs on my Instagram account. Being Instagram, I needed to be able to share images. Signs seemed like a good idea. But what was my inspiration? Where did my fascination with signs come from?

As I reflected on this, I realized my attraction to funny signs started a long time ago. Not “long ago in a galaxy far, far away” long ago. But several decades ago. We’re talking about the infancy of the Internet. Back when the Internet meant:

  • a 1,200 baud modem
  • 100% text (no graphics— other than ASCII art)
  • being online meant one else in your home could use the phone
  • Usenet newsgroups (like rec.humor)

Dr. Lorri Neilsen and Learning Connections

I was actually pretty lucky. My high school was one of the first in Canada to be connected to the Internet. I was part of a project called Learning Connections (this is an excellent read if you have the time—especially if you went to high school with me). It was a project started in 1990 with the help of Dr. Lorri Neilsen. I’m unsure why Dr. Neilsen chose my school, but I’m glad she did. 

A picture of an old computer lab, like the one in my university in the early 1990s.

Dr. Nielsen got our school connected to the Internet to enable students to connect with other students around the world. After she taught us the basics of how to get online, she offered us little guidance. 

Not because she didn’t want to—because she couldn’t. She didn’t know much about the Internet. In 1990, few people did. Her instructions to us were something like, “Go online and see what you can find.”

I stayed in touch with Dr. Nielsen for a while after high school. She got me a summer job selling Internet subscriptions to a now-defunct Internet provider in Nova Scotia, NSTN (Nova Scotia Technology Network). 

The worst job I’ve ever had—at least the one I disliked the most

I had to drive an hour a day to sit in an office. I then attempted to sell Internet subscriptions to people. The problem? No one had any idea what the Internet was. 

A picture of a female telemarketer, reminiscent of the worst job I ever had selling Internet subscriptions.

I hate getting sales calls. I hated making those sales calls even more. But one of the perks included a 2,400 baud modem and a free Internet account I could access from home.

Not to be too much of a ‘Grandpa DC CopyPro’, but let me put things in perspective. Today, most of us have access to an Ethernet Internet connection in the vicinity of 10 Mbps or more. That means to download a 1 MB file, takes 0.8 seconds. 

On my borrowed 2,400 baud modem, that same 1 MB file would’ve taken 3,495 seconds (just shy of an hour). Understand why the Internet was 100% text in the beginning? It would’ve taken days to download a picture! But you would’ve lost your connection several times before that ever happened.

Anyways, now that we’ve established that I’m old…

By the time I got to university, I was well versed in email and the Internet. I spent many hours in the Acadia computer lab in Usenet groups. I connected with jugglers and fans of The Doors around the world. But I’ve always enjoyed a good laugh and spent a lot of time perusing rec.humor. 

A picture of a young woman wearing The Doors shirt.

I would print out any collection of jokes I could find and share them with friends. That’s how I was introduced to the great Steven Wright. His one-liners worked particularly well in list format. “I went to a general store. They wouldn’t let me buy anything specifically.

One list that I remember particularly well was a list of funny hotel signs from around the world. How well do I remember it? Well enough to find it 30 years later.

The search to find the list from my youth

Googling “funny signs” produced too many results, none of which were the list I was looking for. To find the list I remembered, I had to get more specific. I ended up searching for actual phrases from that original list. 

One of the phrases I searched for was, “tootle him with vigor.” Try it. Go to Google and start typing, “tootle him with…” Google will fill in the rest for you.

Some of the signs from that list were mildly amusing. But while sharing them with friends, some would have me in fits of hysteria. Knowing what was coming, I’d be unable to read the end of the line without cracking up and losing it.

I young woman laughing hard, representing how hard I used to laugh at the lists of funny signs.

I find this stuff funny but can’t vouch for its authenticity

I wish I could give proper attributes, but that kind of thing didn’t exist back in the early days of the Internet. People started lists, added entries themselves, and then re-shared them. 

This may not be the original list I found, but I remember all these entries. I’ll comment on and explain to my non-native English readers why people find these signs so funny.

Disclaimer: I cannot confirm the veracity of any of these signs. For all I know, they were entirely made up as a work of humorous fiction. I do not own this work, nor am I able to determine the owner.

Let the fun begin!

In an elevator in a hotel in Leipzig: Do not enter the lift backwards, and only when lit up. 
Intended meaning: Don’t enter the lift (elevator) from the rear, and only when the light is on.
The way it’s written: Don’t walk backwards into the lift and only enter it when you are drunk.

In a Bucharest hotel lobby: The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.
Intended meaning: The lift will be repaired by tomorrow. We apologize for the inconvenience.
The way it’s written: The lift is being fixed. Until it is, it is unfortunate that you will be very annoying.

A picture of the inside of an elevator representing some funny signs related to elevators.

In a Paris hotel elevator: Please leave your values at the front desk.
Intended meaning: Please leave your valuables at the front desk (to keep them safe).
The way it’s written: While staying at this hotel, act as immorally as you like.

In a Japanese hotel: You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.
Intended meaning: We have a chambermaid service. We invite you to use that service.
The way it’s written: We invite you to coerce the maid into having sex.

Outside a Hong Kong tailor shop: Ladies may have a fit upstairs.
Intended meaning: Ladies may go upstairs for a fitting (i.e. get measured for a custom outfit).
The way it’s written: Ladies may go upstairs to express extreme anger.

In a Bangkok dry cleaner’s: Drop your trousers here for best results.
Intended meaning: Leave (drop off) your trousers here. We’re the best dry cleaner in town.
The way it’s written: Drop your pants around your ankles for the ‘best results’ (sexual overtones).

Hotel in Athens: Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 A.M. daily.
Intended meaning: You may go to the office to complain between the hours of 9–11 am daily.
The way it’s written: It is your duty (visitors are expected) to complain each day for 2 hours, from 9–11 am.

A picture of  a young woman reading a list of complaints from her phone.

Technology photo created by cookie_studio

Outside a Paris dress shop: Dresses for street walking.
Intended meaning: Dresses suitable for strolling around the streets of Paris.
The way it’s written: Dresses for prostitution (streetwalker is slang for a prostitute).

In a Rome laundry: Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.
Intended meaning: Ladies, leave your laundry here and have a good time while we wash your clothes.
The way it’s written: Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time (while naked—you figure it out).

In a Tokyo bar: Special cocktails for ladies with nuts.
Intended meaning: We offer ladies a special cocktail, served with a side dish of nuts.
The way it’s written: We have a special cocktail for ladies with testicles (nuts = slang for testicles).

Copenhagen airline ticket office: We take your bags and send them in all directions.
Intended meaning: We will transport your luggage to any destination because we fly all over the world.
The way it’s written: We will send your luggage to random places, disregarding your planned destination.

On the door of a Moscow hotel room: If this is your first visit to the USSR, you are welcome to it.
Intended meaning: If this is your first trip to the USSR, we welcome you.
The way it’s written: If this is your first trip to the USSR, you can take/own it. “You’re welcome to it” means, “Please take it. I’m giving it to you.”

A picture of the entrance to the Hotel Moskva, representing hotels in the USSR .

In an Acapulco hotel: The manager has personally passed all the water served here.
Intended meaning: The manager has personally approved all the water served here.
The way it’s written: All the water here has been drunk and then peed out by the manager. (To ‘pass water’ is a slang term for ‘urinate.’)

In a Norwegian cocktail lounge: Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.
Intended meaning: Ladies, please do not bring your children into the bar.
The way it’s written: Ladies, please do not give birth in the bar.

At a Budapest zoo: Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.
Intended meaning: If you have any food, give it to the guard instead of feeding the animals yourself.
The way it’s written: If you have any food, don’t give it to the animals. Give it to the guard (he is in greater need of food than the animals).

In the office of a Roman doctor: Specialist in women and other diseases.
Intended meaning: Specialist in female medical problems/treatments and general medicine.
The way it’s written: Specialist in diseases, such as being a woman (i.e. being a woman is a disease).

Advertisement for donkey rides in Thailand: Do you want to ride on your own ass?
Intended meaning: Would you like the privilege of riding on your own donkey?
The way it’s written: Would you like the honor of sitting on your own buttocks/ass?

A picture of a donkey, representing donkey rides in Thailand.

Ad by Hong Kong dentist: Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists.
Intended meaning: We use the latest methods to extract teeth.
The way it’s written: Your teeth are extracted by people who’ve recently become Methodists (a historically related denomination of Protestantism).

Detour sign in Japan: Stop: Drive sideways.
Intended meaning: Stop, drive around the detour (i.e. don’t go straight ahead).
The way it’s written: Stop, drive sideways (i.e. directly left or right).

In a Bangkok temple: It is forbidden to enter a woman even a foreigner if dressed as a man.
Intended meaning: Women are forbidden from entering, even if they are foreigners and dressed as a man.
The way it’s written: It is illegal, even for a foreigner dressed as a man, to enter (i.e. have sex with) a woman.

In the window of a Swedish furrier: Fur coats made for ladies from their own skin.
Intended meaning: Women’s fur coats made from natural animal pelts.
The way it’s written: Fur coats made for women using the woman’s own skin.

On the faucet in a Finnish restroom: To stop the drip, turn cock to the right.
Intended meaning: To turn off the faucet, turn the tap to the right.
The way it’s written: To turn off the faucet, turn your penis to the right.

A picture of a bathroom faucet representing a funny sign in a Finnish bathroom.

In a Rhodes tailor shop: Order your Summers suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict fashion.
Intended meaning: Due to the large volume of orders, we will finish orders in the order they are received.
The way it’s written: Due to the large volume of orders, we will kill customers in a strict order.

In a Swiss mountain inn: Special today—no ice cream.
Intended meaning: The special ice cream flavor of the day is typically posted here. There is no ice cream today.
The way it’s written: Today’s special is no ice cream.

In a Czech tourist agency: Take one of our horse-driven city tours—guarantee no miscarriages.
Intended meaning: Take a horse-driven city tour—we guarantee you won’t miss your ride.
The way it’s written: Take a horse-driven city tour—we guarantee women won’t have a miscarriage.

In a Tokyo hotel: Is forbidden to steal hotel towels please. If you are not person to do such thing please not to read notis.
Intended meaning: It is forbidden to steal towels. If you are not a thief, disregard this message.
The way it’s written: It is forbidden to steal towels. If you are not a thief, don’t read this message.

In an Austrian hotel catering to skiers: Not to perambulate the corridors in the house of repose in the boots of ascension.
Intended meaning: Don’t roam the halls at night in hiking boots (i.e. don’t be too noisy).
The way it’s written: No idea, (Perambulate = to roam around, wander, stroll | repose = to lay oneself down to rest (i.e. sleep) | the boots of ascension = climbing boots)

A sign posted in Germany’s Black Forest: It is strictly forbidden in our black forest camping site that people of different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for that purpose.
Intended meaning: People of the opposite sex may only share a tent if they are married.
The way it’s written: People of different sexes, for instance, men and women (as opposed to?!?). | Unless they are married to each other for that purpose. What purpose? Living in a tent?

A picture of a tent in a forest, representing a funny sign in Germany's Black Forest.

In a Zurich hotel: Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.
Intended meaning: You shouldn’t invite people of the opposite sex to your room. You should meet with guests of the opposite sex in the lobby.
The way it’s written: You shouldn’t have sex with guests in your room—we suggest you use the lobby for that.

From a Japanese information booklet about using a hotel air conditioner: Cooles and Heates: If you want just condition of warm in your room, please control yourself.
Intended meaning: Cooling and heating: Adjust the temperature as desired.
The way it’s written: Coles and Heates (misspelled): Please control yourself, i.e. please regulate your own body temperature.

A picture of an old car with an external horn, representing a funny sign from a Japanese car rental brochure.

From a brochure of a car rental firm in Tokyo: When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.
Intended meaning: When a pedestrian blocks your way, honk your horn gently. If the pedestrian doesn’t move, honk louder.
The way it’s written: No idea. “Tootle the horn” is a great phrase. “Tootle him with vigor” is simply fantastic!

If you haven’t had a good laugh or two, we can’t be friends

It’s been 30 years since I’ve seen some of those, but they still crack me up. 

A picture of red boots, representing the phrase, "The boots of ascension" from a funny sign in an Austrian  hotel.

I remember bursting into laughter when I realized that “boots of ascension” meant mountain climbing boots. It’s a rather poetic phrase. It sounds like something a character in an RPG would discover. “Aganon discovers the Boots of Ascension!” It reminds me of this recent post I shared on Instagram about the ‘‘luggage of the weak.”

So there you have it. This obsession pre-dates my coming to Korea. It predates my becoming an English teacher. And it most certainly predates me becoming an English copywriter and proofreader. 

I’m not exactly laughing with you, but I’m not laughing at you

Many of these examples and the ones I share on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn are good for a laugh. But is it any wonder non-native English speakers make these mistakes? Did you check out my recent post about confusing language use in an episode of Gilmore Girls? English is anything but a straightforward language.

While I may initially laugh at these mistakes, that laughter soon gives way to sympathy. English is my native language, and I still find it challenging at times. I also understand how difficult it is for someone studying English as a foreign language to master it. And I’m aware that traps and pitfalls are lurking around every corner, often in the most innocent of phrases

If you’d like to share a ‘funny sign,’ I’m always keen to accept new submissions. Signs don’t have to be from Korea, but you must be the photographer (and permit me to use your photo) for me to share it.

Which one was your favorite? Leave a comment and let me know!

2 thoughts on “Where did my fascination with funny signs come from?

  1. “Do you want to ride on your own ass?” paints an especially graphic image. Reminds me of the joke about “Hold my cock (rooster) and pullet (hen) while I scratch my ass (donkey).” Funny article, Dean!

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