Synonymy down the toilet

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A friend of mine recently noticed a sign in a washroom saying

Do not throw hand dryers into the toilet

and wondered for a few moments just how many people had ever wrenched one of the sturdy hot-air hand-drying machines off the wall and hurled it into a toilet bowl in a fit of rage — before realizing that "hand dryers" was merely an unaccountably weird lexical replacement for "paper towels". Is "towel" a dirty word now? What on earth gets into some people when they are told to write a sign that addresses the public?


  1. Bob Lieblich said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 11:42 am

    Our office building has doors that can be opened by electric motors. To open them, you need only press a fairly large switch about three feet off the floor (convenient for people in wheelchairs). I'm sure most Americans have seen such things. On each door is a sign that says "Operate switch to activate." I've suggested to management replacing that text with "Press switch to open door." No response. At least they didn't call the switch an "activation plate."

  2. Meep said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    There is a sign at the fishmonger in Redondo Beach reading:
    Please do not throw towels in thrash can

  3. Chris Henrich said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

    It is a little surprising that the sign in the washroom did not say this:

    Do not throw hand dryers into toilet.

    Elimination of "the" is a feature of the curiously stilted register that people adopt when writing signs like that.

  4. Jon said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    I've found that the elimination of articles is not just limited to signs, but all kinds of writing. (My experience has mostly been dealing with university employees) I've also noticed a lot of oddities in prepositions.

    (1) The TSA has limited the amount of liquids throughout the security checkpoints. (At the Jacksonville Airport)

    (2) Agree upon a warning device with the crew … (A script for a computer based training on flagger safety)

    Throughout in (1) strikes me as very weird – I would never say it to mean that you can't take liquids through the check point.

    Example (2) is not quiet as bad, but still something I would never say (favoring on).

    I've jokingly been calling it bureaucratic English. Is there an accepted name for this?

  5. Anonymous Bastard said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

    You have taught students, right? Exposure to them can be terrifying at times. Imagine the masses who have no interest attending school at all, let alone any viable reason or drive to do so.

  6. Bill Walderman said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    Maybe "hand dryers" in the sign refers not to paper towels but to individuals who happen to be drying their hands.

  7. Mike Anderson said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

    I would never have thought to throw one of those obnoxious and ineffective blowy gadgets into the toilet. But now….

  8. Mo VanderLism said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    I've always wondered why eau de toilette didn't have a better translation than 'toilet water'.

  9. John Cowan said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    And let's not forget Mark Liberman's encounter with the Semantic Sergeant at .

  10. Bobo said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

    Isn't it possible that the writer of the sign was making a joke?

  11. Mark Paris said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

    At first I thought it was one of those warning labels that caution people not to do obviously dangerous things, like sticking your hand into the blades of a fan or poking things into electrical outlets. Maybe it actually is. There are certainly good reasons not to throw a hand drier into a toilet.

  12. Jesse said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

    Apropos of missing articles, whenever I see the common restaurant bathroom sign, "Employees must wash hands," my perverse mind insists on thinking, "So how come I always have to do it myself?"

  13. Dick Margulis said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

    As a young man I worked in a bakery in Utica, New York. The Oneida County Health Department had at some point earlier than my tenure there distributed posters encouraging sanitary practice. It read, "Employees must wash hands after using the lavatory." As the primary purpose of using a lavatory is to wash one's hands, I would have been unsurprised to discover a pile of skeletons in the bathroom, but apparently other employees had not chosen to take the sign literally.

  14. danthelawyer said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

    I can't help wondering if a lot of these signs are written by lawyers. As a group, we are conditioned to write in the most stilted manner possible.

    Also, statutes that prohibit things are often written this way, like: "The doing of x is prohibited." So someone used to reading that kind of thing might be more likely to write a warning that repeats that language verbatim, rather than recasting it in normal English, like "Don't do x."

    Just a hypothesis.

  15. Ray Girvan said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

    Our local hospital cafeteria has a sign saying "Self-clearing tables". I've watched and watched, and never seen this ingenious mechanism in operation.

  16. Garrett Wollman said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

    @Jesse: much worse is the wording apparently required by the North Carolina DPH: "Each employee's hands must be washed …" (and then it goes on in excruciating detail about all the things employees might do that require their hands to be washed. I don't recall if the also specify the exact procedure for washing hands as well.

  17. Dave said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

    Has anyone thought that maybe the sign was written by someone who wasn't a native speaker of English and maybe just couldn't think of the right word?

    My favorite sign was "Do not flush toilets with feet" which someone had emended by sketching a toilet with two feet on the bottom of it.

  18. Laura Brown said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 5:18 am

    If this place was in the UK, maybe they DID mean the electric dryers on the wall. It's not much stranger than smashing phone boxes or throwing shopping carts into streams.

  19. JimG said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 6:11 am

    I'm with Dave. What is the term for hand towel in the sign-painter's native language? Wanna bet that term translates directly to hand dryer?

    It's enough to make one become a prescriptivist!

  20. Catanea said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 6:53 am

    I am very cautious about using signs, or even speech saying "Don't…" As a mother and also a teacher of adults, I find that in a small but worryingly consistent percentage of cases, people will hear or read only whatever comes after the "Don't" and somehow process it as a suggestion. I tend to very carefully, consciously, and perhaps tediously frame remarks (and occasionally signs) to say "Please make sure you…" or even "Do use…" so as to avoid suggesting errors that might never otherwise occur to people to make. It seems to help. [Remember the perils of telling your children not to put beans in their ears…]

  21. mollymooly said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 11:04 am

    I third Dave and JimG. Cleaning toilets is the kind of job often done by immigrants.

    @Dick Margulis: "lavatory" is the commonest formal-polite British word for "toilet", used where an American might say "bathroom". The original sense of washing has been lost, as with the original sense of all non-vulgar words for the WC (including "WC"). Someone in Utica-Oneida must have had the same understanding as the British.

  22. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

    Catanea: Very interesting. I am a math teacher, and many people in my line of work advise against ever writing down common errors that students should avoid — even if you accompany the common error with words like "DON'T DO THIS" or "WRONG" or "BAD". The reasoning behind this is similar to the point you make: if you show students a common error, the very fact that they're seeing it written down may cause it to stick in their brain somehow, divorced from the word "don't".

  23. TootsNYC said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

    similar to the suggestion not to write the "don't," when I took newspaper courses, we were told never to repeat the original error. So you'd say, "the name of the woman whose whom was burgled was given incorrectly; her name is Shirley Jones, not Charlene James."

    hand dryer : not in toilet :: bottom wiper : OK in toilet

  24. Carrie S. said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    As a mother and also a teacher of adults, I find that in a small but worryingly consistent percentage of cases, people will hear or read only whatever comes after the "Don't" and somehow process it as a suggestion.

    I seem to recall hearing or reading something to that effect some time ago, in the context of relationship advice. The example I recall is that "Please don't forget to take out the garbage" is bad, but "Please remember to take out the garbage" is good.

  25. seriously said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

    This reminds me of a Don Martin cartoon from Mad. The typical Don Martin character looks confusedly at a towel dispenser that says, "Pull Down, Tear Up." He then pulls the dispenser off the wall, tears it up, and walks out.

  26. Ray Girvan said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 9:27 pm

    This reminds me

    This reminds me too. In a German lesson at school (c. 1968) I was told by the teacher on a sunny day to "pull the blind down". I pulled the string, something jammed, and the whole window blind assembly fell down out of its housing, to general hilarity.

  27. P Terry Hunt said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 1:18 am

    Perhaps the establishment in question originally provided paper towels, and had a sign reading "Do not throw paper towels into the toilet." Subsequently, the towels were replaced by a hand drier (probably to cut down the labour of emptying the waste bin – don't buy that "eliminating deseases spread by used towels" garbage).
    Obviously, the sign's wording then required alteration, and the logical minimal change was to mirror the physical substitution in the verbal one.
    Having worked in Facilities Maintenance myself for the last 12 years, this level of thinking would not come as any surprise.

  28. P Terry Hunt said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 1:21 am

    "Diseases," Doh!

  29. Mo VanderLism said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 5:22 am

    It reminds me of the pre-1970s Tiptree's jam-jar tops that said,' Pierce with a pin and push off'. Nowadays, I amuse children by following the instruction, 'Shake before opening'.

  30. Bev Rowe said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

    Skeletons in the lavatory are bad but how many cooks have died trying to obey the instruction "Empty mixture into a pan and stand in the fridge"? Or at least got a hernia because of "Empty pan and strain over a basin"?

    My experience of signs is that they are rarely free of a serious error of grammar, style or logic.

  31. j said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

    Off topic, but I saw this sign in a unisex bathroom in a university physics building. I'm pretty sure it was composed by the administrative assistants.

    If you sprinkle
    When you tinkle
    Be a sweetie
    Wipe the seatie
    Your cooperation in this matter is greatly appreciated!
    The Management

    I like the pomp of "in this matter" sandwiched in between the goofiness of "tinkle" and the closing "the management" (which is overused even as a joke).

  32. Thiago said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 5:57 pm

    I can't agree with Dave. The words "paper towels" would be much easier for foreigners than "hand dryers". Note that is a conclusion from the point of view of a Brazilian who is still learning English.

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