“Huge hieroglyphics”

One often wonders what the world of the future will really think of our present epoch.  It is all very well to say that they will find plenty of documents and an enormous amount of printed matter.  Our newspaper language is obvious because it is printed in large letters.  The names over our shops are obvious because they are printed in large letters. They are not obvious in any other sense. We think them simple because we know what they mean. But they are not by any means things of which one can say generally that it is easy to know what they mean. Take the first case that comes to hand.  Suppose the traveller from New Zealand saw over a big London building the words “Child’s Bank”, I suppose he would think it meant a child’s money-box.  We read it quite simply and swiftly and in another sense; but then, so did the ancient Egyptians read simply and swiftly the huge hieroglyphics that we can hardly decipher.  When they saw a moon, six suns, a human hand, a lotus, and five birds standing on one leg, they immediately burst out laughing, because it was a joke. But our descendants, even if they know our language, may well have almost as much trouble with us as we have with Egypt. The opportunities for a natural error are so infinite; as in the case of Child’s Bank.

I remember when I was a little boy (I was a poetical and unpleasant little boy) I always read the words “Job-Master” over some neighbouring door, as if the first word were the Job of the Old Testament.  I also remember that over a shop of hatters or hosiers in Kensington were written the words “Hope Brothers.”  I supposed this to be an inspiring address to mankind, urging them not to fall into an impotent pessimism.  I have since found that the thing has another and less invigorating meaning; and I am even able to appreciate the irony of the fact that over another establishment of an analogous kind is written “Hope, Limited”.  Try the experiment for yourself with almost any words on which your eye happens to fall.  At the moment when I am writing (with fevered brow) this article, the words on which my eye falls first are “Typewriting Office,” written backwards on a windowpane.  That reminds me of an example.  I once wrote a rather silly book about twelve historic figures whom I chose to consider symbolic — St. Francis of Assisi, Charles II, Tolstoy, and so on.  As a book must have a name I called it “Twelve Types”.  I afterwards discovered that it had some sale as a book about technical printing; I found it myself in a library for working printers.  I hope the poor brutes didn’t read it.

The Illustrated London News, 12 September 1908.

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 11:13 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. September 12, 1908 was my maternal grandfather’s tenth birthday. Not that that’s worth anything as far as Chesterton is concerned…

    Another excellent choice for a quote!

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