Ready, Steady, Stop!

You might understandably be confused if you heard someone say this. At least if you’re in an English-speaking country.

When I was living in Belgium, I noticed that people often used the English word stop. Of course French has a direct translation, arrêter, but stop is such a common word, recognised around the world, that it didn’t seem unusual that people used it. And they seemed to use it pretty much the same way we do, to mean, well… stop. Only after a while I noticed it used in a quite surprising way.

It may have been as some children were playing. The adult there was beginning a game by saying un, deux, trois… Nothing unusual there: one, two, three. But then to start the game, he shouted: STOP!!

And of course the children started.

Ah, I thought. Now that’s not quite right. Well, it is to them, of course. But of course for an English speaker it was quite jarring to hear stop being used to mean start.

I noticed this happen a few more times. Mainly when I was part of a running group. Any time we started a run, it’d be the same thing: un, deux, trois, STOP!! And each time it took me a second to realise that they meant GO! Of course it should’ve been obvious from the context, but my mind was just so conditioned to the word stop meaning stop that I could never really get used to it.

I never really minded too much though, because I could understand the confusion. To us, at first, it might seem inconceivable that someone could confuse stop for start/go. It’d be like confusing black for white, night for day! But that’s really only the case from our perspective, knowing that stop means stop. But try to step out of your English-knowing shoes for a second, and imagine you know nothing at all about the language.

Imagine you see someone shouting STOP! at the end of an event. Would you assume necessarily that it meant stop? Could it not also be a general call to attention, that could be equally used to stop or start an activity? I think that’s how stop has come to be used in this more general way. It’s an interesting insight into how we figure out the meaning of language from context. It gives us so much information, but we can often still get things slightly wrong, even if our logic seems sound.

Funnily enough, even though I noticed this use of stop straight away, there’s another much more common use of the word stop in Belgium. Have a look at a Belgian stop sign:

red stop sign

Photo by Pixabay on

Looks familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, stop signs in Belgium say stop, in English. I actually didn’t really notice this for a few months. I was thinking about this again recently (while thinking about how French speakers use top to mean brilliant or great). I was thinking again about how strange it was that I was driving round for months not noticing that this incredibly common sign was written in English. Was it just me? Do signs in other countries say stop in English too?

No, and yes. I asked an Italian colleague who confirmed that yes, stop signs in Italy also say stop. And in fact, they say stop in most parts of the world. This might not be news to you, and it shouldn’t really be news to me, because I’ve been to a few different countries, all of which have stop signs in English, and even driven in six or seven of them, and never really noticed that the stop signs were in English. Like my colleague’s case, it wouldn’t really seem strange if you grew up with them from your childhood. But why didn’t I notice that Belgian signs didn’t say ARRÊTEZ?

Familiarity, I suppose, but I also wondered if there’s something inherently… stoppy about the word stop? It’s firm and blunt, so maybe that helps convey a sense of… stoppiness. It’s hard to really know that, and the idea of words having inherent senses to them is a bit problematic. Anyway, there’s still a logic to having stop signs in English. People speaking many different languages could be driving in a particular country, and having the word in English means as many people as possible will understand this important sign.

Stop signs in English aren’t universal though. Many Caribbean and Latin American countries use PARE, the Spanish and Portuguese word for stop. In Quebec, signs are bilingual, in English (STOP) and French (ARRÊT). Interestingly enough, arrêt here means stop as a noun (as in bus stop), whereas I’ve always assumed that stop on signs was the imperative form of the verb (arrêtez).

Anyway, it’s interesting how stop is so ubiquitous. It might seem a little odd that such a sign is in English in non-English speaking countries, but for denizens of those countries, it’s not so strange as they see them all their life. It actually feels stranger for me that I didn’t notice the Belgian signs were in English for so long. But our brains save us from a lot of heavy lifting: they see a sign we already know, in a situation we’re used to seeing it in, and decide we don’t need to think about it too much!

It’s just like how we listen to people: our brain processes what we’re hearing so we don’t have to consciously think about the meaning of each word, and things go smoothly. Until someone uses stop to mean start

6 thoughts on “Ready, Steady, Stop!

  1. I spent three and a half years in Korea without consciously noticing stop signs there. Wikipedia shows an octagonal red sign with
    Some dictionarying shows that ‘jeong-ji’ is a noun. It can be made into a verb by adding 하다 (ha-da), but the most common verb for stop is 세다 (se-da) or 세우다 (se-u-da). Those are both infinitives, so would probably have to be made into an imperative, but Korean has different imperatives according to politeness levels (at least four that I know of), which may be why they chose the noun. There are a few polite nouns, but *every* verb comes with a wide choice of politeness (or not).

    Liked by 1 person

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