Erection in progress

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Toni Tan sent in the following photograph:

As soon as I looked at the sign I burst out laughing.  Once I recovered my breath, I had two thoughts:

  1. the typography and design are too neat and professional to have been done by a workaday jobber in Chinese-speaking East Asia
  2. it reminded me of another sign I wrote about recently: "Everywhere, anywhere " (1/29/15)

This kind of sign falls into the category of genuine Chinglish wording picked up by a commercial signmaker for retail, entertainment sale.  Indeed, I found the identical sign, the very same photograph as the one pictured above here (4th line).

It's even available in three different colors:

Signs like these are produced in Australia, but the copy for them comes from all over Chinese-speaking East Asia.

We have a lot more ground to cover, but before going further, it is incumbent upon me to provide the usual Romanization, transcription and translation of the Chinese text:

shīgōng zhōng 施工中 ("under construction")

bù zhǔn shǐyòng 不准使用 ("use not permitted")

Nothing out of the ordinary here.

Now let's take a look at some real examples of this type of sign in use:

This instance has a very Singaporean look to it.  Notice that on this one they put a conspicuous comma after the third character and a bold exclamation point at the end.  I found it on this linguist's website with detailed analysis of the English and the Chinese. Here (third photograph) it is at an actual erection site, with scaffolding in evidence:

The last two characters have been smudged beyond all recognition, but this copy comes from the same signmaker as the previous one, so in all likelihood the missing characters are shǐyòng 使用 ("use").  Given the situation, however, it would have been better if a version were available that had one of the following pairs of characters at the end:

chuānxíng 穿行 ("pass through")

jīngguò 经过 ("pass over")

jìnrù 进入 ("enter")

rùnèi 入内 ("enter")

Here is a list of twenty things that are not permitted / allowed (bù zhǔn 不准)  at construction sites (most of them have to do with rebars).

It should be noted that "Danger!  Erection in Progress" is a standard worksite warning sign.  Its posting is required by OSHA and also certified by ANSI. See this "OSHA DANGER Erection In Progress Sign ODE-8084 Construction" and this "ANSI DANGER Erection In Progress Sign ADE-8084 Construction", both sold by ComplianceSigns. (OSHA = Occupational Safety and Health Administration; ANSI = American National Standards Institute.)

About five years ago these monolingual safety signs became quite popular when juxtaposed with leering or ecstatic males. A variant, "CAUTION:  STEEL ERECTION IN PROGRESS" also appeared.

Once the "Danger!  Erection in Progress" sign became a hot item on t-shirts, it went global (things didn't yet go viral so quickly in those days).  Somewhere along the way, a clever person thought that the warning would be more explicit if a picture were added.  Judging from the precise placement of the X, the humorous intent was probably there from the beginning, even when the bilingual "Erection in Progress" with picture added was used on actual worksites.  Normally, signs of interdiction or prohibition consist of a red line surrounding the action or person that is forbidden, with a single, diagonal red line passing through the image or verbal warning.

To make this Language Log post complete, I can't avoid mentioning that "Erection in Progress" / shinkō-chū no senkyo 進行中の選挙 signs have probably been posted more than once at voting stations in Japan.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Rebecca Fu, and Hiroko Sherry]


  1. Michael Richards said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 1:13 am

    And of course there were the signs put up all over the Great Court at the University of Queensland in 1971, during protests against the visiting Springbok rugby team, which were headed 'Erections Forbidden in the Great Court'. They were worried about tents being put up during the university strike, the administration claimed.

  2. Chris McG said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 2:14 am

    One of my Year 9 maths lessons was unsalvageably disrupted by a crane labelled "PNL Erection Services" being visible from the window.

  3. Linda said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 7:28 am

    And the planning department of a local council in Britain who wonder why they were not receiving new building applications by e mail, only by post. They eventually found the net filter wasn't allowing all those erections through to them.

  4. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 9:53 am

    As I student, I had a part-time job in the Harvard News Office. The director of the office decorated his walls with framed headlines and stories. One headline read, "Harvard Dean Fights Erection in Yard." The story revealed that the famous (in Harvard circles, anyway) Dean Wilbur J. Bender had opposed construction of the modernistic, stone-and-steel Lamont Library among the red brick and mortar buildings in Harvard Yard.

  5. Rodger C said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 12:35 pm


    I'm reminded of the original name of the Amax energy company: American Metal Climax.

  6. Harold said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 4:59 pm

    "But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience." — Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter xxxii – "Cetology".

  7. Bfwebster said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 9:46 pm

    Ok, that last item in the post made me laugh out loud, enough so that my wife took off her wireless headphones and asked me about it.

    It reminded me of one of the missionaries I served with in Central America 40+ years ago, a Guatemalan. When I would run into him and say, "Que tal?" ["How are you?"], he'd respond, "O, como seis pies." ["Oh, about six feet."].

  8. Bloix said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 10:08 pm

    Harold's comment made me curious, so I did an n-gram on erection. It appears that it began to decline steadily in published usage beginning in about 1912. In the 19th C, "erection" was used quite unselfconsciously to mean, literally and metaphorically, the establishment or construction of something (e.g., "The Erection of the Government of the State of West Virginia.") So perhaps this is not so much Chinglish as outdated English.

  9. Sandy Nicholson said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

    On a point unrelated to the linguistic humour in these signs, I wonder why the mischievously placed crossing-out in the ‘Singaporean’ examples looks exactly like the UK road sign for an ungated level crossing (AmE: railroad crossing).

  10. Johan Palme said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 11:55 am

    Of course, using "erection" as a synonym for "construction" is a British headline writer's double entendre dream, as this classic football headline demonstrates:

  11. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 1:25 pm

    "Wankdorf" certainly fed into that dream.

  12. BobC said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 4:33 pm

    I love the position of the big "X" in front of the male figure.

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