Remove this

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In the bathroom at a friend's house tonight I saw, on the underside of the toilet lid, firmly affixed with adhesive, a printed paper sign that I truly do not understand. That is, although I comprehend it (it is in six languages, all of which I read well enough to be able to follow the legend in question), I don't follow what its purpose could possibly be. I am truly baffled. Let me show you what it said. Keep in mind that the following is all of what it says. Nothing is missing from the label, and there is no other wording at all (and incidentally, the various accent mistakes are not mine, they are copied from the original). See if you are as baffled as I am:

Denne etiket skal fjernes før brug
Bitte vor Gebrauch enfernen
Remove this label before use
Retirer cette ètiquette avant utilisation
Dit etiket dient verwijdered te worden vóór ingebruikneming
Quite este rótulo antes de usar

The symbols "DK", etc., are enclosed in ovals on the label; they're the standard country name indications for Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Spain, respectively. The label is at the top of the underside of the lid, centered. Here's a picture:

What could possibly be its purpose? What was this sticker put on for? I'm baffled. And so distracted I think I may have left comments open…


  1. Vance Maverick said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    So, what did you find underneath? I would expect to find the message "Must be covered by manufacturer's sticker", permanently printed in the same six languages.

  2. HP said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    "Withhold pee prior to removing sticker."

  3. boris said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    Maybe someone who has a subscription to New Scientist (I don't) can read this article and tell us what it says

  4. Awais said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    Perhaps a marker to differentiate unused toilet lids from used ones?

  5. Grant said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    Pandora's box is under that label, but you'll never know unless you take it off.

  6. Peter said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    How about the following scenario: for some related items made by the same manufacturer — older models of the same seat, or similar models in a different material — there was some important information that needed to be included, so they set up a sticker along the lines of “WARNING: must be installed by qualified linguist only. // Please remove this sticker before use. (x6)” Then for this model, the first bit of information ceased to apply, so someone removed it from the sticker, and failed to notice that the whole thing had become redundant?

  7. Michael said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    If you want to use the label, it must first be removed from the toilet lid.

  8. Bruce Rusk said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    A boring possibility: could the section of the seat to which the label was affixed have been in contact with another piece such that the sticker would protect the surface under it from damage when the parts were in the original package prior to assembly? Or, similarly, could it be on a spot likely to be damaged during installation (for example, at a place where the handle of an overzealously turned wrench might thwack the seat as it was being screwed in)?

    [I've added a photo now, so you can judge for yourself. I don't think there's any possibility that your hypothesis is right (though of course you are absolutely correct that it is boring!). —GKP]

  9. marie-lucie said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    This is reminiscent of the unsightly semi-rigid tags saying "do not remove" prominently attached to stuffed objects such as teddy bears, pillows and sofas, which make buyers uncertain of what they are supposed to do. Actually these tags mean "to not remove until sold", because they contain information that the manufacturer is legally required to provide about what the stuffing is made of. The store cannot interfere with this requirement, but the new owner is not obliged to leave the tag on the merchandise.

    This case is a little different since the stickers do not contain any such information. My guess is that they are like stamps of approval affixed by the personnel doing the final inspection, and have no further purpose than to say that the object is brand new. Leaving them on the toilet, sink, bathtub etc would only expose them to get soiled and unhygienic. But the owner of the house where you saw the sticker either did not pay attention to it or was confused about its purpose and thought it safer not to interfere with it. (Another possibility is that the sticker is glued so firmly that it is very difficult to obey the instructions and remove it).

  10. Eric P Smith said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    It’s like the notice that reads simply, "It is forbidden to throw stones at this notice".

  11. Brian said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    My guess is that sticker is not directed at you, the consumer, but at some stage of the manufacturing and assembling. The confusion is caused because they failed to remove the sticker.

    [No, it says before use, not before sale or before packing. Think again. —GKP]

  12. Ian Tindale said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    Clearly this is a cost-saving measure, resulting in a more affordable loo seat. It would cost too much to employ someone at the factory to remove it there.

  13. Amy Reynaldo said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

    It's art, is what it is. Magritte would be proud.

  14. Roy Sablosky said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    Did you ask your friend about it? Maybe they found the sticker on some other product (where it did perform some sort of function), removed it as advised, and then carefully recontextualized it in the bathroom.

  15. Mark Etherton said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

    Reminds me of the cover of the National Lampoon crime issue:

  16. Mark Liberman said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    A collection of monolingual versions:

  17. K said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    It may be unwise to assume that the label came on the lid…as Roy S. said, perhaps it was originally affixed to something else and found its way there? In my house there are myriad children who think stickers belong in all kinds of strange places.

  18. Avinor said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    To connect to another posting on this blog, those "standard country name indications" within an oval come from another Vienna Convention, namely the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. They indeed used to be the standard abbreviations for European countries, but in the on-line age, they have increasingly been supplanted by the 2-letter ISO codes used in Internet domains.

  19. Tim said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    The New Scientist quote (from 30 Jan 1999) reads:

    Nils Erik Grande says he found a label on a liquid ginseng bottle simply telling him to remove it before placing it in the microwave (Feedback, 9 January).

    This kind of thing is not exclusive to Norway. When my dad bought a new toilet a while back, there was a fairly large clear plastic label stuck to the back, the only label on it, saying in about 10 different languages: "Please remove this label before use."

    We also couldn't see any reason for it, as it wasn't even covering anything which needed to be exposed (or protected in transport). I think it's something along the lines of the three or so pages we usually get at the back of exam papers just saying "Blank page".

  20. Ross Presser said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

    It's an intelligence test put there by aliens. If enough people notice it and start discussing it online, the aliens will take it as proof of our intelligence and finally reveal themselves.

    [Are we gonna make it? At least I noticed it and posted about it; I should get alien brownie points for that. —GKP]

  21. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

    Boris, the New Scientist column (not an article but a summary of correspondence) merely pokes fun at the redundancy without offering an explanation. A later letter to the magazine speculates that the purpose is to distinguish brand-new items from returns.

  22. Bruce Rusk said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

    Another hypothesis: it's a quick way to check that plumbers have done their job thoroughly. If the label is present, the installer has been careless (or is illiterate).

  23. db48x said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    "The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy."

    It's not limited to any particular location:

  24. Rubrick said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

    It was simply a clever (and successful!) ruse on someone's part to trick you into opening comments.

    [Shit. They got me. —GKP]

  25. Alec said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:38 pm

    Reminds me of another favourite, "This door must be kept closed at all times".

  26. Nicholas Sanders said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

    My daughter, who has inside knowledge concerning another type of product, confirms that this kind of label can be used to indicate that certain checks have been carried out during a manufacturing process. The precise details of the checks are not indicated so that a manufacturer is not later held responsible for any failure resulting from the process and the checks.

    She suggests that the label in this case might have the same purpose.

  27. J-M said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    It's there to inform you that your hosts are the kind of people who do not follow instructions.

  28. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

    That "THIS PAGE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK" notice has always annoyed me.


  29. Corinne said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

    I once saw a napkin adorned with one line of text, which proudly proclaimed that it had been printed in biodegradable ink.

  30. ohwilleke said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 7:10 pm

    I'm inclined to think it is for the benefit of contractors in mass produced housing complexes and that the intent is to distinguish between completed and uncompleted jobs.

    One also imagines that it might also correspond to the "remove green M&Ms" clause in music tour contracts. It is put there as a way to confirm if anyone is reading the contract as they go about implementing it and thereby allowing unconscientious local support teams to be screened as high risk for contract violations on material points in an easy way.

  31. Glennis said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

    K: "In my house there are myriad children who think stickers belong in all kinds of strange places."

    Good point. In my house we eat a lot of labelled supermarket apples, and the stickers that end up in strange places usually read "COX". So far, none of them have ended up on the underside of the toilet seat. Probably just as well.

  32. ProudToBeAMammal said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

    A remote possibility is that the label is a remainder of the original label, which was partly removed.
    I remember seeing a label "Made in Japan. Please remove before use."

    [I looked carefully for that. The edges are sharp and straight; no part of the label seems to have been worn off. —GKP]

  33. Steve Kass said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

    For what it's worth, this label seems to have been noted before.

    [Yeah, on rocketryforumarchive. Who the hell reads that? Only Language Log can reach the kind of broad audience of ingenious people who just might be able to come up with… the long succession of loopy ideas you're now reading. —GKP]

  34. maidhc said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

    I'm guessing it's to prevent a used toilet seat being sold as new. But the concept may have some flaws.

  35. MattF said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

    Don't know what it's for, but it's clearly preferable to a label that says "Do not remove this label before use." In six languages. Or, for that matter, a blank label.

  36. Gregory Stump said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

    That brand of toilet lid leaves the factory with two labels. The upper label is the one Geoff refers to. The lower label says (six times, in the same six languages) "After use, remove this label and reaffix the upper label." Geoff's hosts are clearly the kind of people that follow instructions, and the toilet has thereby been clearly marked as used.

  37. Stephen Moore said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

    Just a missing comma. "Remove this, label before use" is the corrected form. This piece can be used either as a kitchen cutting board or a toilet lid. It's socially awkward to use it for the wrong purpose, so the then need for proper labeling arises.

  38. Jimbino said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    I hope you didn't remove the label. It's a warrant issue: if you remove the label, you show you have used the toilet.

    [I didn't remove it. It may have had a bit of a sprinkling, but nothing that would wash it right off of there. —GKP]

  39. Vireya said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 3:53 am

    My favourite piece of redundancy is also toilet-related. On the door of a public toilet in a small town in Australia is a sign which reads, "If this door is accidentally locked, any key will open it."

  40. Lavatorial said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 5:16 am

    1. The sticker was a price tag from which the plumber had carefully removed the price.

    2. Added to used/old toilet seats to create the illusion of newness.

    3. Warranty void if sticker not properly removed before use.

    4. Warranty void if sticker removed.

    5. Scientifically proven to enhance the experience of owning a brand new toilet seat. Peeling the sticker off feels like uncorking champagne or cutting a ceremonial ribbon. Your friend has missed out on this excitement, I'm afraid.

    6. The manufacturer preferred a proper tamper-evident sealed film wrap, like on food packaging. Forced to hastily switch to 'newness indicator' stickers when consumers reported urinating all over the floor after failing to remove the film wrap.

    7. Shoplifters caught with stolen toilet seats often claim that they suffer from OCD and carry their own personal toilet seat everywhere with them. The remove-before-use sticker serves as proof of non-use and is time consuming to remove, thereby acting as a deterrent.

    8. The intended sticker featured beautifully designed branding/artwork in subtle hues. The factory workers, sadly not speaking any of the six helpfully-provided languages, had mistakenly discarded the sticker and instead applied its 'remove-before-use' backing film.

  41. Plegmund said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 6:49 am

    The toilet seat was accompanied by a set of fixing instructions in several different languages. The manufacturer does instructions in several different sets of languages, but the seats are identical and you can't read the instructions or see which set of languages is covered when the seat is packaged. This label is a visible indication of which languages are covered in the accompanying instructions, to help ensure that when seats are dispatched, the language for the relevant country is covered.

  42. Plegmund said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 7:03 am

    An example in search of a paper (on pragmatics?), perhaps.

  43. Vanya said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 7:20 am

    "I'm guessing it's to prevent a used toilet seat being sold as new"

    That seems like the obvious answer, which Awais also pointed out at the beginning of the thread. Not that helpful though if the consumer doesn't know to look for the label when shopping.

  44. Adam said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 7:21 am

    If Professor Pullum's acquaintances don't already plant linguistic oddities in their loos when they know he's coming to visit, they will now.

  45. Frans said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 7:37 am

    On a tangential note, the Dutch contains a typo and is somewhat awkward to boot. Verwijdered should be verwijderd, but I'd suggest the much simpler sentence "verwijder dit etiket voor gebruik" instead (or "dit etiket voor gebruik verwijderen"). Currently it actually says something like: "this label should be removed before [the toilet seat] is put into use" (emphasis original), which seems quite different from all the other languages.

  46. AlexB said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    Are you sure the label hadn't been removed from something else (which was then, presumably, used) and got stuck on the toilet seat afterwards?

    @Plegmund, such things are usually covers by bar codes.

  47. spherical said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    "Use" in the instruction quite obviously doesn't refer to the toilet lid but to the label itself.

    The label serves no purpose beyond its being removed. Once this has been accomplished, it can be used for sticking it on whatever object you might want to remove a label from next.

  48. Marion Crane said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    @ Frans: About the emphasis, I've seen many texts where 'vóór' is used to show they mean 'before' and not 'for' or even 'in order to'. Without the emphasis, some people seem to think this sentence could be parsed as 'remove this label in order to use'. Personally, I have never had trouble with 'voor' but apparently some people do…

  49. Frans said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    I think voor gebruik is such a common phrase that it's hard to parse it any other way; e.g., schudden voor gebruik (shake before use) and for that matter verwijderen voor gebruik itself. Besides, I think the distinction doesn't even matter: when you remove something in order to use it, surely that still equals removing it before using it? ;)

  50. tpr said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    I'm inclined to think that the communicative function of the label derives from its presence or absence rather than what's printed on it. Its absence means "used" and its presence means either "unused" or "used by disobedient or illiterate people". I find this a more plausible explanation than some kind of mistake because I'm having a hard time reverse engineering the mistake to guess at what the failed intent of the sticker might have been. I can just about imagine it being a mistake if each toilet lid in the manufacturer's range requires some usage instructions except for this particular model, leaving the sticker template empty save for the removal instruction (motivated by hygiene) that appears on each of them.

  51. Quixotrist said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    I bought a Roomba. It came in a box. Filling one empty space was a piece of styrofoam with the legend "discard before using."

    What were you doing taking apart the toilet?

  52. John Roth said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    Who is to remove the label? The plumber? The patron?

    It's sort of like the "this page intentionally left blank" messages. I know what they're for, but I can't think of a way of expanding it to explain why the publisher thought to put a message on a blank page that doesn't sound condescending.

  53. malkie said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    In response to Brian's comment (July 5, 2012 @3:17 pm) you said:

    [No, it says before use, not before sale or before packing. Think again. —GKP]

    I think that you are giving the manufacturer or packer of the item too much credit for common sense.

    Many items have labels that do not say what they mean, and must be disobeyed for the item to be used.

    As an example, what do you do with the tablets in a bottle which has a seal on which is printed: "Do not use if seal is broken"? The plain meaning is that as soon as you break the seal you may not use the product.

    This could easily be fixed by printing instead: "Do not purchase if seal is broken". But I have never seen such a sensible instruction on a bottle seal.

  54. Mike said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

    Is ticket a polite Danish euphemism for "underwear"? I think now that it is.

  55. Fiona Hanington said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    What's the make of the toilet? I think we should ask the manufacturer.

  56. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    I'm afraid I'm with Brian Rusk.

    Think of the shelf life of toilet seats: probably a couple of years. They are almost certainly stored in stacks, so that each seat may be under a considerable weight. (How thick is a toilet seat in its cardboard box? 2 inches or so. How high is a standard shipping container? Maybe 8 feet; so there might be a stack of 40 or more seats) The soft plastic pads on the underside of the lid, on which it would rest when in service, are not made to carry this weight (if they were, they would be much too hard for their function when the seat is in use, e.g., allowing the lid to fall without making a loud noise). They would deform permanently and probably also leave a mark on the seat. Therefore, some element of packaging is inserted that keeps the lid out of contact with the seat. This piece of packaging supports the lid in the area where you found the label. The label protects the surface from being marked by this spacer piece. Why not, you say, simply coat the spacer with a suitable surface that would not damage the inside of the lid? Well, simply because protective films such as the label are standard technology and need no development (i.e., no need to store a batch of seats for the projected shelf life in order to test whether the part functions correctly). And also, possibly, because forming or cutting a piece of, say, expanded polystyrene or cardboard to the right size is a very cheap and easy process, while covering it in its own plastic film is a much more sophisticated job.

    The label might also be a measure to help the more dimwitted kind of consumer who reads the instruction booklet even for a toilet seat. The instructions refer to the label as something that has to be removed, and this ensures that they raise the lid before attempting to use the product for the first time ;-)

  57. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    @ Malkie:

    "do not use if seal is broken" applies equally whether the user has purchased the product or not.

    In the case of medicines, for example, the package may have been dispensed without charge, not purchased by the patient. More often, the person responsible for performing the final check of the package integrity before administering the drug/product may be a health care professional. Given that cases of tampering with medical products sometimes occur in hospitals (i.e. after purchasing and after QC on incoming goods, if there is any), it is very important to ensure that the last person to handle the intact package is alert for any signs of damage. This person is certainly not the purchaser.

  58. David Walker said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

    Adhesive bandages are often individually wrapped, and each wrapper says "Sterility guaranteed unless package is opened". Yes, but you can't USE the thing until you open the wrapper. At which time it's no longer guaranteed to be sterile.

  59. marie-lucie said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    If you open the wrapper seconds before applying the bandage, there is not much time for the bandage to accumulate germs and for most purposes it can be considered sterile at the time of applying. But if the wrapper shows signs of having already been opened or damaged by the time you want to use it, it cannot be trusted to be sterile any more and should be thrown out. And if you open a wrapper but do not to use the bandage right away, you should also throw it out because it will no longer be sterile when you need it later.

  60. Sandra Wilde said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

    Uh . . . ask your friends if the label was already on there or if they put it on themselves to be funny? If so, where did they get it from? If it was already there, why did they leave it there? Is the toilet seat new?

    I think this is a problem to solve by social rather than logical means.

  61. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

    There's a simple way to check. The next time you buy a used toilet seat at a flea market, see if it's got a sticker.

  62. Bedwetter said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 1:10 am

    Perhaps the sticker serves the same purpose as the flaw in an oriental carpet, ie to remind the consumer that only God is perfect. For when it is removed, there will always remain some slight residual color discrepancy. Not to mention an enduring patch of stickiness that will resist all solvents and preferentially attract and retain dust and grime forever.

    Either that or Markov Cheney is alive and well.

  63. Glenn Bingham said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

    Disregard this comment.

  64. Dan Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 8:07 am

    That "THIS PAGE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK" notice has always annoyed me.

    That used to annoy me until I got more heavily involved in exam setting. While it seems like a joke, it's actually there so that people know that a blank page is supposed to be blank, rather than being supposed to have anything on it (this is particularly important for exam scripts, when unexplained gaps can cause undue stress to candidates or – worse – could represent an actual omission from the paper).

  65. BSF said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    I've seen similar stickers on appliances (e.g. washing machine, microwave oven). It is printed on a large, transparent film that sticks to the surface of the appliance and protects it during shipping. Sometimes one must feel around for the edge of the film in order to remove it and reveal the actual surface beneath, which typically has a different texture.

  66. Janelle B. said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

    I think @Stephen C. Carlson has a point. Not to be crude, I would point out that the sticker in the crotch area of women's undergarments often simply says something like "remove." Other than signaling that the item has been bought when removed, that sticker does nothing to protect either the women or the undergarment from possible contamination…

    Also, @Dan Hemmens, I thought the blank page in exams was for students to use as scrap paper in working out math problems and such. That's what I always did, and I've never been penalized for it… it's more pleasant than trying to fit everything in the margins.

  67. Dan Hemmens said,

    July 11, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

    @Dan Hemmens, I thought the blank page in exams was for students to use as scrap paper in working out math problems and such. That's what I always did, and I've never been penalized for it… it's more pleasant than trying to fit everything in the margins.

    You probably wouldn't be penalized for so doing, but I don't think that's the primary function (and with more exams being marked electronically, working written in unexpected places might receive no credit).

  68. Noel Hunt said,

    July 11, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

    I am reminded of the time one of my Greek lecturers at university told us about a wooden post (randomly placed somewhere) with a sign on it: `Do Not Lean Bicycles Against This Post'.

  69. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 7:52 am

    I have looked at all the proposed answers above, and frankly I cannot say that any of them gave me a true "Aha!" experience. I still don't understand what the label could possible have been for (though I appreciate the ingenious hypotheses above).

    One other thing, before we close this little episode. I now have in my possession a small yellow sticker, which was taken off a new UK passport. What it says is the following:

    this label

    That is all. I rest my case. If you are not baffled by this, I take my hat off to you.


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