Memories and Musings: Words and symbols and colors, oh my!

Published 7:58 am Monday, December 20, 2021

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By Gene Gallelli

What would we do without our daily interactions with words? We either understand or misunderstand them; use or misuse them; pronounce or mispronounce them; spell or misspell them; or just give up and look at the pictures.

Then there are the litanies of words that few people actually read – except maybe the attorneys who wrote them – that go on for 10 pages to tell us we must agree with or sign something before we can spend our own money.

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It’s the same legal types who pen 10-page appliance warranties to make it clear that the company is responsible for nothing.

In my opinion, we are overlooking the “genius” – that may be a little exaggerated – of those who write traffic signs using few words and, occasionally, a few symbols. Imagine approaching an intersection and reading a sign that says, “within three feet it will be necessary for you to apply your brakes to prevent your vehicle from crossing the white line.” Fortunately a genius sign author accomplished the same thing by just writing “Stop!” on a fancy-shaped metal sign.

When you think of it, traffic-sign writers have only a two-page dictionary, the one we all study for renewing our driver’s license; compare that to the typical Merriam-Webster, five-pound volume with hardly any pictures.

While we’re at it, let’s give a shout-out to the gal or guy artist who created the thick red circle with a thick diagonal line; put it over anything and it means, “don’t do it!” Simple and to the point.

Red, yellow, green and blue lights certainly play a role in eliciting our behavior. Red lights mean danger, stop and other things. Yellow tells us to be cautious (or go faster). Green lights invite us to continue on, or continue doing something. And, finally, blue is the calming sky or the Tar Heels or the state of sadness after being jilted. When any of the aforementioned colored lights are flashing, it’s wise to be extra cautious – it could be an ambulance or the local sheriff getting ready to pull you over.

Advertisers are masters at using words to “increase the probability that you will spend money,” which is a euphemism for “trick you into something!” For example: You “may” be eligible for a bonus. You “may” increase your credit score. You can save “up to” $500 on car insurance. Or, that you are “automatically enrolled” in a drawing for a new four-bedroom home. And the beat goes on.

The good news is that during this season-of-many-holidays, words, colored lights, symbols and signs are used to uplift spirits, strengthen families and bring friends together. They are the tools of communication available to us all. However, how we use them will finally depend on what values and beliefs reside in our individual hearts.

Gene Gallelli was Associate Superintendent of the Dare County Schools for eight years. He received his Doctor of Education degree from East Carolina University, where he taught and supervised students studying to become school administrators.