He Stoppeth One of Three
I feel much as a respectable Greek citizen must have felt when accosted in the market place by Socrates for a jolly chat about the meaning of “virtue” or “happiness”. Let me set the scene.
Like many others, although generally with a simple reversal of sign, I cycle the bikepath along the Ottawa River Parkway to work most days during the summer. It is a beautiful 20 km ride starting in downtown Ottawa (reaching 46 km/hr down the hill to the lock gates), following the south shore of the Ottawa River to my work at Nortel in the west end. If nothing else, this accounts for my comment about the “sign reversal”: most people live in the west end and commute into Ottawa to work.
This last week there were roadworks on the Parkway at the beach by the Kitchissippi Lookout and these spilled a little onto the bike path. This has been signalled to cyclists by the erection of a number of signs saying “Cyclists must disembark and use the sidewalk” at each end of the construction site. It’s not the term “sidewalk” that rings odd (although, in context, it too is odd since the sidewalk (pavement) and bike path are identical), but the term “disembark”. From Monday to Thursday, in each direction, I puzzled over this verb. Did it mean that I had to stop, take all of my luggage off the bike (briefcase, spare clothes, etc.), leave the bike and walk through the construction area? If so, how would I get my bike back? Anyway, since everyone else was carelessly ignoring the notices, I did so too.
On Friday, however, there were workmen strategically placed to stop cyclists and to debate the wording of the sign. This gave me the opportunity to engage in a discussion over the meaning of the verb in the context of a bicycle. It has certainly meant “To put ashore from a ship” since 1582—I have a paper copy of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (21,600 pages) and it says so. I can, however, find no reference to bicycles, or even aircraft.
However well-meaning, the workman seemed inadequately briefed by his employer (presumably Ottawa council) about the precise meaning of the sign and confused “disembark” with “dismount”. After some very civil and unheated discussion, however, he let me pass riding my bicycle, presumably agreeing that my argument was persuasive. Another cyclist was coming in the other direction and he was also being addressed by a (different) workman. I stopped briefly to help with the linguistic analysis but had to leave before it was complete.
Even though I was temporarily caught off guard without my references (the OED being too heavy for my bike), it is refreshing these days to find people willing to stop others in the street to engage in a Socratic dialogue over the meaning of an obscure word.