Signs and significance, Vol. I: the UCT Library

In what will probably not ever become a series, consider this sign, displayed in the library of the University of Cape Town. The casual observer might simply pass it by, given that the casual observer is typically not that observant.

The slightly less casual observer might pause to reflect on the irony inherent in the fact that a university library approved, printed and now displays a sign that contains two spelling errors. Or, they might reflect on this a little later, shaking their heads while sipping their cognac.

Others, perhaps drawn from the subset of those humans who like to caricature the ideas and people they don’t approve of, might take this sign as evidence of something larger, and refer to this sign with derisive hashtags like #spellingmustfall, or somesuch.

But another reading is possible, in which this sign transcends its surface interpretation as mere error, and becomes a subtle joke, or even better, an elegant piece of trolling.

On this reading, the misspelling is intentional. On the left of the sign, we see “PHYLOSOPHY”, and briefly consider that we might look in that direction for books involving the study of Greek pastry.

But of course that can’t be it – we realise that pastry doesn’t require a full section in an academic library, and also that cooking books are classified in the 640 range according to the Dewey system. So it must be a misspelling of “PHILOSOPHY”.

What’s this, though, on the right of that? Here we see “PSYCOLOGY”, which one would ordinarily read as a misspelling of “PSYCHOLOGY” – a reading that, you might think, becomes more plausible alongside the misspelling of “PHILOSOPHY”.

That conclusion is perhaps too hasty. Readers who grew up in the era where it seemed to make sense to watch movies like “Wayne’s World” would remember the use of the word “psych!” to indicate a retraction or correction of something previously uttered, where the person saying “psych” was taking pleasure in how they had fooled their interlocutor.

“Psych” is a contraction of “psychology”, of course, but given that some of those who used “psych” in this manner might not have been aware of that, various misspellings of psych itself were commonplace, such as “sike” or the further contraction that is “psyc”.

We therefore see that the misspelling of “PSYCOLOGY” is intentional, and draws attention to the intentional misspelling of PHYLOSOPHY”, as a joke and a tip of the hat to dated pop culture references (the latter being something that is perfectly appropriate in a library setting).

The joke is then further amplified (with thanks to my colleague T for pointing this out) by the line at the bottom of the sign, which tells you that “the book sequence now starts at the other end of the terrace”.

In other words, if you think these two cases a misspelling, and if you are feeling some annoyance at finding such grievous errors in a university library, you “have the wrong end of the stick”, as the idiom goes (meaning, you have misunderstood).

If this were the 1990’s, when I started at UCT, an English student could have written a Ph.D. on this one sign. Alas, those days are over, and all we get now is flippant blog posts.

(Photo credit to another colleague, A, who might want to remain anonymous.)

P.S. The book sequence does actually start at the other end, though.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.