What are they on about?

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
David Newnham looks into the future of labelling

Caution, slippery surfaces. Terms and conditions apply. Push bar to open. Do not incinerateI Is somebody writing these down? Because if not, they ought to be.

These are the specialised phrases without which modern societies could not function. Yet familiarity breeds contempt. No dictionary that I'm aware of acknowledges their existence, and you'll not find their like in the book of phrase and fable.

The very least we could do is publish a league table (this week's most ubiquitous command: "Please take your card"). Because one day soon, when we are looking the other way, they will simply vanish, only to resurface decades later as limp verbal props in a TV costume drama.

Actually, it struck me recently that some subversive organisation might already have launched a covert campaign to make us sit up and notice these unregarded words. My suspicions were aroused by a tin of pink salmon. It had been sitting in the larder for months, but the other week, as I was clearing out ancient jars of wrinkled pickles, I thought to chec its sell-by date.

Seeking out the words "Best before see base", I upended the container without pausing to celebrate the beauty of this commonplace phrase, so economical, yet entirely meaningless outside the precise context in which it operates.

But what was this? On the base of the can were the words "Use before June 3004", printed in purple. I read it again, slowly. Yes, it clearly said "3004". It was obviously a misprint. Or was it?

I stood there for a minute and imagined the days racing past me, as they do in that old film, The Time Machine, so rapidly that the sun flickers like a stroboscope.

I pictured what the world might be like 1,000 years hence. What would people make of this primitive artefact - a relic from a distant era when fish were trapped in metal containers?

Would there be can openers in 3004? Would there be cans? Would there be fish?

These and other thoughts flashed through my mind, and made such an impression that I know I shall never again pass lightly over those words "Best before see base". And perhaps that's no bad thing.

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