What are they on about?

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
David Newnham finds a sign of the times

You have just spent in excess of pound;100 on a new piece of kit. You take it home, rip open the packaging and discover a heavy instruction manual among the chunks of squeaky white polystyrene.

Do you (a) fling it aside in your eagerness to get at the goodies, (b) put it somewhere safe with a view to consulting it should you find yourself in difficulties, or (c) find a nice cosy armchair and curl up for a good read?

Those of you who answer (c) will understand when I say that any satisfaction derived from the weight of the manual (if the item purchased is that complicated, it's surely worth the money) quickly evaporates with the realisation that only the first three pages are in English.

But as it turns out, you should have savoured those written instructions while you had them. For the alternative now is but a single sheet of paper containing no words at all, just hieroglyphics.

I think this trend started with razor blades. Sealed in packs designed to hang on racks in any supermarket, these items were at the cutting edge of linguistic globalisation. Some years ago,their packaging dispensed with all words except the name of the manufacturer. In their place was a succession of cryptic diagrams, in which the new language of sign and symbol was to be honed.

It was here that I first met the two-headed arrow, the ticks and crosses denoting the right and wrong way to do it, and the big hand with its perfect thumbnail that always holds the equipment just so.

Today, with the wordless instruction sheet sweeping all before it, I can't help wondering whether it hasn't overreached itself.

Take this halogen lamp. No matter which way I hold the base, I can't get it to look like diagram 3. What is the hand doing? Why does the bulb hover over an exclamation mark, and why is there a bendy arrow pointing at the filament?

In desperation, I search the rest of the packaging for words, but all I find are more little pictures. Won't somebody please talk to me? Then I spot something familiar. It shows a person, arm outstretched, dropping something into a receptacle. At last I have found a symbol that speaks my language. And screwing up the instruction sheet, I head for the bin.

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