It’s a sign

Some words get under my skin. One of them is “signage.” At some point it seemed like businesses and government buildings couldn’t have plain old signs anymore. In almost every discussion I’ve read or heard where signs are mentioned in recent years, it’s called signage.

When something like that really bugs you, it’s usually worth trying to figure out why.

I started with the word itself. What’s the different between a bunch of signs and signage? None.

English has a ton of words that work like that. If you have a bunch of wrecks, you have wreckage. If you have a bunch of bags, you have baggage. Railroads refer to all their tracks collectively as trackage. When ranchers measure all the places where they put animals out to pasture, they call it pasturage.

We have coinage, we have tonnage, and on and on.

“Signage”is a late arrival. It seems to have come into vogue in the 1970s, according to a few different dictionaries. That shouldn’t count against it. We’ve adopted plenty of new words in the last 40 years.

If there’s nothing wrong with the word itself, maybe there’s something irritating about the way it’s used. I think that may be it. “Signage” sounds like an affectation.

Nobody says they have coinage in their pockets. Nobody says they grew up on the wrong side of the trackage.

When you are about to check out of a hotel, you might say “I’ll grab my baggage and meet you in the lobby,” but you are at least as likely to say, “I’ll grab my bags.” You are more likely to call them suitcases. You would never call them suitcasage.

People do talk about mental baggage, so that’s a point in favor. But that’s using the word as an abstract concept. People wouldn’t know what you were talking about if you said you had a mental bag.

Even as an abstraction, preachers don’t warn us about the signage of the end times. Economists don’t look for signage of a recession.

Perhaps the most authoritative citation is that sign companies don’t call themselves signage companies — usually. I’ve seen a couple that sneak the word into their taglines and slogans. Some even claim to offer “signs and signage,” ready to serve you no matter which side of the argument you take up.

“Signage” has caught on among the bureaucrats and other folks who can’t seem to use a simple word when a fancier one is available. If you have to blend in with that crowd, go ahead and use “signage.” But don’t make a habit of it.

When you want to communicate clearly and quickly, all signs point to simplicity.


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