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SEE BELOW FOR INSTRUCTIONS

Earl Fowler

A friend of mine was taken aback the other day by the instructions on a package of tamarind chutney:

DO NOT HEAT

Deforest Chutney by dipping the pouch in warm water or in microwave under deforest setting.

Even if Deforest Chutney is a distant relative of DeForest Kelley, whom you might remember better as Dr. Leonard McCoy from the original Star Trek series, I suspect the man Captain Kirk called “Bones” would be of absolutely no use in locating the deforest button. “Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not an engineer.”

Presumably, a highly qualified marketing professional with a mother tongue not called English confused “defrost” with “deforest.” Which, if you think about it, has a certain compelling logic in this era of rapid climate change.


It set me to pondering the sometimes perplexing, sometimes hilarious, always confusing instructions confronting consumers in what is also an era of international trade in which much of what we buy originates in Asia.


Sometimes the problems arise from faulty translations, as can easily be illustrated via a tour d’horizon of Instagram or such websites as Bored Panda and Knowledge Owl. (Think of this as the literary equivalent of five minutes spent assembling a Femmen Vag or Dombas from Ikea.)

Exhibit A: Honda’s 1962 compilation of motorcycle safety tips, as translated from Japanese for American riders, is considered a classic of the genre:


1. At the rise of the hand by Policeman, stop rapidly. Do not pass him by or otherwise disrespect him.

2. When a passenger of the foot, hooves in sight, tootel the horn trumpet melodiously at first. If he still obstacles your passage, tootel him with vigor and express by word of mouth, warning Hi, Hi.

3. Beware of the wandering horse that he shall not take fright as you pass him. Do not explode the exhaust box at him. Go smoothingly by.

4. Give big space to the festive dog that makes sport in roadway. Avoid entanglement of dog with wheel spokes.

5. Go soothingly on the grease mud, as there lurks the skid demon. Press the brake foot as you roll around the corners, and save the collapse and tie up.

I’ve run across these jaunty injunctions a few times before, and for some reason they always put me in mind of the 1920s prose poem Desiderata, widely distributed in poster form half a century ago during the dawning of the Age of Aquarius:


Go soothingly amid the grease and mud, and remember what festive dogs there may be in wheel spokes. As far as possible, beware of the wandering horse that he shall not take fright without surrender, and be on good terms with passengers of the foot who hooves in sight. With all its sham, exhaust box explosions and lurking skid demons, it is still a melodiously too-telling world. Press the brake foot and be cheerful. Strive to save the collapse and tie up, Hi Hi.


Abstruse specifications for certain products, albeit mystical as a well-constructed haiku, can be mercifully pithy and compendious. For example, a laconic chair assembly decree I once came across was accompanied only by a photo of randomly labelled parts. There was neither a key to explain what the labels meant nor a diagram indicating how the parts might ideally be fitted together. I wound up with a table instead. Here is the complete text:


Good first commect parts, and then screw one by one to lock it, then have the good parts!

What I particularly like about that screwy bit of gibberish is the exclamation mark, which sounds a cheerful note of optimism guaranteed to succinctly commect various exhaust box explosions in your head, one by one. Let the good parts roll! Parts like it’s 1999!


Rather than transcribing the directives and warnings for a possibly lethal contraption called a Dragon Ball Z, I’ve taken the liberty of inserting the whole shebang here burn-in prithee wind to a close wield, making sure to appertain rotor of screw setting pre ceiling on the under standing that the screw no wield. Or, as we wordsmiths like to emphasize in impressive plythee pillroller boldface, May pre house the seamy side volitation!!



Till the cowcomes home, mean see what I you.


Now, apart from translation cockups — which, sadly, are becoming less egregious and edging into treasured rara avis territory due to increasingly sophisticated AI language programs — there is no shortage of confusing decrees, diktats and enchiridia of a more sinister sort.


While taking a bewildering array of new medications in my early days as a cancer patient, I became aware of how irritatingly sloppy and ambiguous the wording on prescription pill bottles and vials can be.


I filched this one from knowledgeowl.com, as it’s an outstanding exemplar of the indeterminate stipulations routinely dispensed at pharmacies throughout North America, but it’s only slightly more absurd than prescriptions I was handed:


EVERY NIGHT BEFORE FOOD ONCE DAILY TO BE TAKEN FOUR TIMES A DAY THREE TIMES EVERY THREE TIMES DAILY TAKE ONE TAKE TWO TAKE THREE ONE OR TWO

Try adhering to a regime like that when already burdened by a head full of ideas that are driving you insane.

And then comes the inevitable kicker:


Warning: follow the printed instructions you have been given with this medicine.

Meaning it’s your fault if you don’t. Those printed instructions, as nebulous as what’s on the bottle and often extending over 10 or 15 pages, read more like they were written by a lawyer than by a caring medical professional. And that’s because they were, with the foremost and overriding objective being to protect the drug company’s ass and make it all but impossible to sue if anything goes wrong.


It’s not their fault if a patient doesn’t understand plain English. Or French. Or any given language in which Big Pharma’s legal ass needs legal protection.


Sometimes, even when medication instructions are straightforward, extensive training from the Cirque du Soleil or the Bolshoi Ballet Academy would be needed to avoid making an unholy ass of yourself in trying to comply. This life-saving directive was issued by a pharmacy in upstate New York:


INHALE 2 PUFFS BY MOUTH EVERY 4 HOURS RECTALLY

I’d like to believe that only a depraved and malevolent doctor or druggist would deliberately dispense unclear information. They don’t teach the dark arts of subterfuge and liminality to swotting med students, but neither do they prioritize communication skills.

However, 50 years of thumbing through the arcane jargon of appliance and electronic manuals and inscrutable vade mecums has firmed up my conviction that the obscure techno-babble is designed to do two things: a) Persuade flummoxed owners of defective products that they’re not grasping some tantalizingly simple concept that would easily solve whatever the problem is, and b) Manipulate the poor saps into throwing in the towel and buying a new model.


It’s not their fault if a customer doesn’t understand plain English. Or French. Or any given language in which a corporate ass needs legal protection.


For those of you who, like me, have never been able to figure out why they put so many useless flipping buttons on TV remotes and not infrequently find yourself trying to undo the unwanted effects of one you’ve brushed with an errant elbow while beginning to doze off, consider this concise, practical explanation from an accompanying guide:


How do I interpret the programmed actions


To be able to understand the behaviour of your installation when the schedule timer is enabled, it is important to look at all the programmed actions for the current day and maybe the last programmed action of yesterday.

If the first programmed action for today is not active yet, the current status of your installation depends, most probably but not necessarily, on the last programmed action from yesterday. Read the important note below.

If the first programmed action for today is already active, the current status of your installation depends, most probably but not necessarily, on the parameters programmed in the first programmed action for today. Read the important note below.

NOTE: To keep the operation of your installation simple, the schedule timer settings can be easily overruled by altering the current setting (“last command” overrules previous command until next scheduled command).

In other words, the probability of ravelling out of this moiling cloud and disabling the maddening audio descriptions for the blind that you have accidentally triggered before coming to the end of an episode of Matlock — which you were going to shut off anyway but are now engaged in a life-and-death struggle to salvage — is toggling, most probably but not necessarily, somewhere between the waters of oblivion and Sweet Francis Anne.

(On the plus side, you might have finally stumbled on the Deforest button, next to Swap and Pip. Lukewarm tamarind chutney, anyone?)

Then there are the alerts and exhortations, often pertaining to safety, so obvious and unnecessary that they insult our intelligence and leave us wondering if we’re missing something.


DO NOT BREATHE UNDER THE WATER

CAUTION: FIRE IS HOT

OPEN BOX BEFORE EATING PIZZA

IF DOOR DOES NOT OPEN DO NOT ENTER

That sort of thing. I don’t know how many times I’ve waited impatiently for a restaurant employee to show up while standing next to a vacant sink under a sign that proclaims: EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS. Could have washed my own hands hours ago, so I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask them why.


A big part of Donald Trump’s appeal — in a do-this, don’t-do-that country that nostalgically harks back to mythical Marlboro Men in a Harley Davidson home where the buffalo roam — is his gleeful, adolescent eagerness to defy recognized authorities and do things his way.


Warn him against viewing a solar eclipse without protective glasses and he’ll make a show of doing precisely that while pointing at the sun as if he just discovered it from the Blue Room balcony of the White House.

Advise him to wear a mask and get vaccinated during a COVID pandemic en route to killing more than a million fellow citizens and, have no fear, he’ll quickly get vaccinated to protect himself while continuing to spout witless, reckless alternative remedies like injecting bleach or using a deworming drug for horses. Screw the eggheads who think they know better than us!


Rugged American individualism and the concept of challenging authority were once widely understood to be about something more noble than using a succession of sleazy lawyers to enrich oneself by exploiting legal loopholes to rip off other people, but that was the family modus operandi the future president learned at the knees of his grasping, racist father and despicable mentor Roy Cohn. Turns out Trump isn’t such a heedless rebel after all. Those lessons — the art of the steal — he absorbed to the marrow.


But the bottomless adoration of this very stable rotting monster by his mesmerized base stems at least partly from his refusal to follow the rules of civilized behaviour and, more to the point, his incontrovertible success at flouting them.

The quintessentially American (and Vonnegutian) retort to Trump’s critics: If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?


Cashing in on our implacable exasperation with signs, signs, everywhere a sign, blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind, savvy merchandisers have recognized the sales appeal of cocking a snook at blindingly obvious or befoggingly confusing product instructions by throwing in jocular admonitions of their own.


Today’s hip shirts come with such tongue-in-cheek “Easter egg” tags as:


100% COTTON

MACHINE WASH COLD

IT’S NEVER SO HOT

THAT YOU HAVE TO

TAKE OFF YOUR SHIRT

DON’T BE THAT GUY


Or


I HOPE THIS MAKES YOU

FEEL LIKE THE FUCKING

PRINCESS YOU ARE


Or


REMOVE CHILD BEFORE WASHING

I appreciate this trend, but it’s making it harder to discern which instructions are whimsically waggish and which are disturbingly deranged.

Wouldn’t you love to know the backstory to the following advice appended to roof antenna installation instructions back in the halcyon days of rabbit ears and test patterns?


Do not attempt to install if drunk, pregnant, or both

Do not eat antenna

Do not throw antenna at spouse


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2 Comments


I wish you had included some instructions for reading this

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Best consumed while tonguing that wee hole in a tooth you keep forgetting to ignore.

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