In memory of Karen Virag, who passed away Jan. 11, 2014, we are pleased to republish one of her popular blog posts from November 2013.
Not long ago in the Air Canada Lounge at Toronto Pearson Airport I noticed a small sign beside a tray of freshly baked cookies. It said:
“For the safety of our passengers with allergies, these cookies contain nuts.”
Now, I have to say, I don’t know why so many people complain about Air Canada. Knowing how many passengers are allergic to nuts, AC actually went out of its way to prepare a snack that, well, contained nuts. Good on them.
What Air Canada probably meant to say on this sign was, “These cookies contain nuts. So, if you are allergic to nuts don’t eat them because you could die.” (Or something like that. Maybe it would be too much to expect an airline to use the verb “die” in any of its materials.)
Off-kilter sentences like this belong to a particularly rich linguistic class I like to call verbal boobery (VB). Consider this example from a notice about emergency procedures:
“In cases of extreme emergency, the operator may tell passengers to evacuate through the PA system.”
The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage notes that the original meaning of evacuate is “to empty a building,” which is a definition true to the word’s Latin roots — e meaning “from” and vacuate, from the Latin evacuare, meaning “to empty.” But as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary tells us, evacuate can also mean to “empty one’s bowels”; “to discharge feces.”
So, the passengers being addressed here are either so thin that they can squeeze themselves into the wires of the PA system, or the people on the other end of the PA system are about to get a nasty earful.
The August 12  issue of Australia’s The Independent reported a particularly fine example not of VB but of a delightful slip of the tongue. The paper cited this comment, made at a Liberal Party event in Melbourne by opposition leader Tony Abbott: “No one — however smart, however well-educated, however experienced — is the suppository of all wisdom.”
A statement of great, um, rectitude, Mr. Abbott.
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