I suppose I might refer to myself as, among other things, an autodidactic semiologist; that is, a self-taught expert on signs. Chances are — if you are a functioning member of society — you’re one, too, albeit perhaps unwittingly.
It has occurred to me that some of the signs around us indicate what is considered to be otherwise normal behavior and socially acceptable under most circumstances. For example, signs that read “Don’t walk” at traffic intersections are implying that walking is the normal behavior and that a sign is needed to indicate an interruption in the normal behavior.
Similarly, some signs may reflect behaviors that we normally don’t do, such as restaurant restroom signs that say “Employees must wash hands.” These suggest that the normal behavior — not usually washing one’s hands after completing most mundane tasks — is neither acceptable nor sufficient for food handlers after using the toilet. In this case, the sign is needed to indicate the necessity of a behavior.
This observation, that signs indicate what is otherwise normal behavior, is underscored by the absence of signs prohibiting behaviors that are otherwise unacceptable in society. (Sorry about the double negative.)
For example, there are no signs in restaurants to remind us, “Please eat only the food at your table.” That’s because eating the food from the tables of strangers next to you is not considered acceptable, normal behavior under any circumstances. Note also, you will not find signs in restrooms that say, “Please do not eat food found on restroom floor,” for reasons that should be obvious.
Apparently, there was a day when signs had been posted throughout the land that read, “Do not spit on the floor.” I’ve never seen one of these, with the exception of the sign in the trolley car on display at the Heinz History Center that says, “Spitting prohibited.”
A cursory online image search reveals these and early 20th-century variants, some of which included fines and/or health warnings: “Spitting on sidewalks prohibited. Penalty: $5 to $100 ~ Dept. of Health.”
Others contained clever slogans: “If you expect to rate as a gentlemen, do not expectorate on the floor.”
The erstwhile ubiquity of these no-spitting signs would suggest that the behavior was once common enough — apparently socially acceptable, or at least tolerated — that signs needed to be posted to inform spitters when and where their behavior was prohibited.
Indeed, the presence of these signs seemed to have been rivaled by that of spittoons, a receptacle designed for the purpose of being spit into, particularly by smokeless tobacco users. They were also known as “cuspidors,” a word thought by James Joyce to be the most beautiful in the English language (He was close; phonaesthetes say it’s “cellar door”.) Curiously, each justice of the U.S. Supreme Court has a spittoon near his or her seat in the courtroom. Interpret that as you will.
Over the course of nearly a half-century of experience, I’ve found that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who spit regularly and those who do not. Those in the former category can be seen depositing their saliva while exercising or playing various sports, or just walking down the street. And there’s no mistaking that puddle of spittle on the sidewalk for anything else. Occasionally, one notices a car door opening at an intersection and the driver leaning out to release a loogie.
I fall into the latter category of nonspitters. My spitting is limited to dental appointments and the occasional oral entomological invasion while riding my bicycle.
Throughout my life I’ve known spitters; some have even been close friends of mine. In my younger years, I tried to become a spitter as well, just to fit in and seem as cool as my spitting friends. But for whatever reason, it never took.
Let me hasten to say that I don’t view spitters as having anything wrong with them, although I have no idea what makes the spitting part of their brain tick. And while I have no prejudice toward spitters, at least none I’m aware of, I have to admit to having a mild recoil of repulsion whenever I see it. I once caught a short video clip of Metallica performing live. When lead singer James Hetfield spit on the stage, with all the casualness of someone who does this frequently, I winced and wondered if his bandmates found it distracting.
Usually, I don’t mind it. If I’m walking with a spitter friend and he happens to mark the sidewalk periodically, I don’t let it interrupt our dialogue. However, if I’m playing volleyball at a picnic in my bare feet on the grass and I happen to notice teammates spitting, I do get a bit squeamish. The idea of stepping in, or even possibly slipping on, someone’s fresh expectorant makes me want to hurl.
But I don’t. Hurl, that is.
Sure, I could rationalize that soaking the playing area with my vomit is exactly what those spitters deserve, but I enjoy playing volleyball far too much to ruin the experience for myself and everyone else.
Admittedly, though, there is still part of me that wants to get back at the spitters for a lifetime of being grossed out by their projectile salivations.
James Hilston is a graphic artist for the Post-Gazette (jhilston@ post-gazette.com, 412-263-1268).