Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

A friend and I were talking recently about roadside warning signs that include the word exist. We both find them problematic, though perhaps not for the same reasons. Here are a couple of examples; you've probably seen some yourself.

Left: Erik Johnson, Right: Jim Argo via Oklahoma Historical Society.

My friend is a physicist. When he sees the "ICE MAY EXIST" sign, it sends him down a thought pathway along the lines of yes, and water ice may exist in a number of different crystalline phases, which is of course not pertinent to the purpose of the sign. I'm a linguist and when I see "GUSTY WINDS MAY EXIST" I think that's not really in question. Our experience tells us that they do exist, so why cast doubt on something known to be true while I'm flying down the highway?

What is common to both of our interpretations of these signs is that we're greatly overthinking them. But they illustrate a problem for transportation authorities the world over: how do you convey, succinctly and clearly, important information to motorists who may be whizzing by at high speed and need to know of hazards or features of the road? To examine the problem, let's first zoom out all the way and talk about what a sign is in the most general sense: a perceptible indication of some other thing.

Semiotics is the branch of philosophical inquiry that studies signs and how they communicate meaning. According to Charles S. Peirce, whom we should rightly regard as the father and patron saint of semiotics, signs can be divided into three types: icon, index, and symbol. A few signs that we encounter may represent one of these types purely, but most signs that we humans deal with are hybrids, exhibiting some aspect of icon, index, and/or symbol.

It is the nature of the relationships between signs and the things they stand for that give us the confidence to assert that signs bear a dependable relationship to the "real" things in the world that they refer to. Here is the barest of primers to distinguish the three types of signs:

  • icon: a sign that resembles its object, usually visually but also via any other sensory pathway. Any photograph, image, or realistic drawing or painting is an example of an icon.
  • index: a sign that bears an existential or dynamic relationship to its object, such that a change in the object would be reflected in or would require a change in its sign. An index is an indication of another thing, in the most literal sense. A weather vane is a good example. When the wind changes, the pointer of the weather vane changes as well, indicating the change in the wind.
  • symbol: a sign that bears an arbitrary relationship to its object, and is connected to it by virtue of usage, consensus, and convention. Words are mainly symbols, though in usage they may incorporate some indexical features... Onomatopoeic words are an exception, as they also incorporate an iconic aspect.. Onomatopoeic words also incorporate an iconic aspect.

Icons and indexes are more primitive than symbols. Lower animals can interpret and act on icons and indexes. Symbols are more sophisticated and are the foundation of human language, as well as many of the other ways that human cultures have devised to streamline their communications and to pass on information from one generation to another.

So to return now to the narrower subject of road signs: what elements of signs generally should they incorporate in order to ensure their success?

Let's start with the easiest and indispensable feature of a road sign: it is always an index. In other words, if the feature that the road sign calls attention to were not present, the sign would have no purpose; it would have null reference. This points up why my friend and I are overthinking the signs shown above, while also obtusely refusing to recognize the signs' indexical nature. While neither sign affixes a "here"to the end of its phrasing, they imply it by their placement. Ice may exist here, Gusty winds may exist here.

Symbolism is present in the signs shown above in two ways: the language on the sign, and the shape and color of the signs. Every US driver knows that a yellow diamond-shaped sign symbolically indicates a feature or possible hazard that merits the driver's attention.

Is there anything iconic about a yellow and black sign? Perhaps, since yellow and black appear together in nature as a hazard warning, on the abdomens of vespids, for instance. But not all countries choose yellow for warning signs. Here are some from the UK.


These British road signs all achieve semiotic trifectas: they are iconic (in the images), indexical (in their placement) and symbolic (in their consistent use of a triangle with a red border). They are all wonderfully clear because of this.

A road sign that can incorporate an icon is always going to be a better sign because of the immediacy of recognition that icons impart. The one exception to this rule would be cases where the icon is unclear or ambiguous. What, for example, is the driver to infer from this sign?

From Language Log

A possible though cognitively dissonant interpretation would be "Do not enter if your car is on fire". In fact it warns drivers who are transporting hazardous materials not to enter, but you'd probably never guess this in the moment, so we can mark it as a signal failure.

Given that all drivers these days have the option to rent a car anywhere in the world where cars are driven, it's surely in the interest of everyone that road signs should incorporate icons whenever possible and avoid difficult language. If you were motoring in Mannheim, for example, which of these two signs would you find more helpful?


Left:; right:

Surely every non-German speaker would appreciate the icon on the left-hand sign. This sign type is a case where English succeeds admirably, even without an icon: our signs just say "Tow-away zone", a phrase that is more likely to be in the vocabulary of even an elementary English learner.

Where language is required on a road sign, it should be short, simple, direct, and not a challenge to a speaker of another language. This, in a nutshell, is why I don't like exist on road signs. It's a formal and abstract word in this context and prompts the reader away from the immediacy of the hazard. "GUSTY WINDS AREA&" does the job better than "GUSTY WINDS MAY EXIST".

There are whole collections online of road signs that bemuse or infuriate drivers. Are there any that you find especially problematic? Examples from other languages are especially appreciated.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.