Monday, 7 May 2012

Against ponderous carriages attempting a passage

Out for a walk as a family today in rural Hertfordshire, we came across this wonderful notice on the side of a bridge:

Take note that this bridge is insufficient to carry a weight beyond the ordinary traffic of the district and that owners and all persons in charge of locomotives and all other ponderous carriages are warned against attempting the passage of the bridge. By order, etc.
The notice is dated 23rd October 1899.

I admired the way the language combined gravity and clarity, old-fashioned perhaps, but conveying so much: trust in readers to make a judgement based on their own observations of what the ‘ordinary traffic of the district’ might be; trust in readers to act on a warning rather than a prohibition; and an implication in the phrase ‘attempting the passage’ that this would be no more than an ‘attempt’, without certainty of success. I also enjoy ‘Take note that’, which is a statement of much greater tact than ‘Do not’; ‘warned against’ rather than ‘warned not to’, for its elegance; and ‘ponderous carriages’, which uses less space than ‘slow and heavy carriages’. 

Is it too Latinate and pedantic? I do not accept any argument against ‘locomotives’, a common term then for what are now usually called ‘traction engines’ (all three words deriving from Latin), ‘ponderous’, a fine word in use in English for more than 600 years, or ‘warning against’, which is good simple usage. This leaves us with the phrase ‘attempting the passage of the bridge’. I would argue that this is no more odd than, for example, ‘attempting an assault on Everest’ or ‘attempting an immediate return to the Premier League’. ‘Attempting the passage of’ some awful cliché-ridden writing or some banal celebrity-focused journalism might not be so good, but for a physical crossing of a bridge I see no problem, no archaism, and no reason not to enjoy its use.

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