Written by Eric Damer; copy edited by Meagan Kus
Like many people who find themselves working as an editor, I grew up in a household of word enthusiasts. My father, an English teacher, methodically circled spelling and grammar errors in the local newspaper or identified errors in environmental print, but he also loved puns, spoonerisms, double-entendres, and wordplay of all sorts. Well before I turned to editing as a line of work, I knew the value of saying what you meant, and meaning what you said—unless you had a joke to tell. Now, it seems, I have difficulty turning off my error-checker for the sake of a chuckle.
I first recognized this tendency many years ago while working in Maple Ridge, when I noticed that the aisle signs in a local drugstore were missing a few letters. One aisle contained “eye ops,” another “baby nees,” and a third “a algesics.” I was delighted—not one aisle marker in the entire store had a perfectly spelled sign! Maple Ridge, it soon turned out, was a good place to find amusing errors. For example, one fast-food restaurant not far from a row of churches proudly proclaimed on its large sign, “Wo—Zesty Fries Are He.”
I have a soft spot for people who use English as a second or additional language. After all, I would make similar errors if I communicated in a language different from my mother tongue. Instead, I have great fun looking for mixed messages written (or even spoken) by people who should know better, particularly if they are paid to know better. I get the biggest chuckle from advertising, since I know that the writers are trying to sell their product, not amuse passers-by with inadvertent wordplay.
I always take note of environmental print wherever I go. Last Halloween I stopped in a major supermarket to smirk at a sign that read “GHOST ICE TEA.” How timely, I thought—but then realized that GHOST was an abbreviation of a popular brand name. (I’ll let you decide which one.) A few weeks later, the same store had another large sign advertising “Rooster Scented Jasmine Rice.” I stifled a laugh. The sign had been changed to “Rooster Brand Scented Jasmine Rice” for my next visit, depriving me of a repeat chuckle.
Another supermarket nearby plays “musical letters” with its exterior signs. Every week, it seems, a different set of letters remains unlit at night, revealing different messages. One night, the supermarket was a “foo” store, and another it was a “fod” store. For a while it had a “harmacy,” where, I suppose, you buy medication that makes you more ill. Before long, the store had a “hamacy,” which perhaps carried pork products. Some time earlier, the self-storage warehouse up the street evidently had a similar problem with its illuminated sign and was fed up, stating in bold letters, “Public rage!”
Some people may not understand this kind of fun, but I suspect that editors typically enjoy playing with words. Editing isn’t only about sitting for hours in front of a computer searching intently for missing punctuation or inconsistent references and trying to get it right. Sometimes, editing is also about having a good laugh.
Eric Damer is a historian, author, editor, and sometime blacksmith.
Meagan Kus is a freelance copy editor and proofreader with an 18-year background in arts administration.
Image by Amy Haagsma