February 2, 2009

Trying too hard to be clever

Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, where my family usually goes for medical treatment, is a nice place. Nice facilities, several restaurants to choose from, and good medical care. One thing consistently bothers me, though. In the parking garage, the signs indicating which ramps are for ascending and descending look like this:

See the problem? They're trying to be clever, instead of simply delivering the information required. They've abbreviated "down" as dn, which is an exact 180-degree rotation of the word up. The problem is, "dn" is not a word, so my brain actually reads both as "up", because it makes more sense for it to be an upside-down real word than a right-side-up fake one.

I'll admit, it's clever. But I think it's misplaced. Consider the audience: a mixture of Thais and foreigners from virtually every nation on earth. Bumrungrad is a big medical tourism destination. They even did a whole segment on it on 60 Minutes in the U.S. a few years back. If this is confusing for a native speaker of English, how is this useful for anyone else?

Sure, there are arrows, and the meaning should be clear from the context, but in that case why not just write the words in Esperanto? It would make as much sense.

I think they'd be better off (a) spelling the word "down" properly and dispensing with the misplaced cleverness, or (b) ditching the English entirely in favor of universally understood giant arrows.

Here's the same picture as above, rotated 180 degrees. If it weren't for the electrical wiring and the Thai writing, you honestly might not know which way was up!


  1. I wonder if there have been any collisions because of the confusion. Parking garages are nerve-wracking enough without knowing for sure which way to go.

  2. This never came into my mind (or my brain) before! How clever!
    However I also wonder how many people actually recognized "dn" like you did. It's really interesting how people recognize things different. (I also go to bumrungrad too) :) I will look carefully next time I visit!

  3. Well, up dn I like it!

  4. Que? Only a linguist could be confused by or read extra meaning into that... :)
    To me at least, 'dn' is just an abbreviation of 'down', and with the arrows, it's quite clear what it means.
    Maybe they wanted nice big lettering that could be seen from afar and only two letters of that font size could be painted on or would fit the pillar so they abbreviated it to 'dn'. Or maybe they are stickers they ordered, and after receiving them, found that there wasn't enough room on the pillar to fit the word 'down', so rather than order some more , they cut out two letters.
    See? Easy. :)

  5. Bumrungrad is not really the oh-the-wrong-stickers-came-let's-put-them-up-anyway kind of place, though. (those signs are paint anyway, btw :P). It's a very slick operation.

    One thing Thailand has a true abundance of, though, is talented graphic designers. I have friends who do great work on 8K a month. They're a dime a dozen (unfortunately for them). So I can't help but think that a place like Bumrungrad has very talented people working for them. I suspect that whoever designed it just approached it from a visual more than functional perspective. Personally, I don't think it enhances the signs' usefulness. That's all I'm saying. I don't think it's going to get anyone killed, and I'm not about to lobby the hospital to change them.

    Also, don't sell the Thais short. Not everything here is due to mistakes and lack of attention to detail. :)

  6. On the subject of Bumrungrad, I wonder how many of its foreign visitors correctly pronounce the name ? I think the way it's been transliterated means most people would read it as bum-run-grad (sounds like the name of a Russian city!) rather than as bum-rung-raat, which has got to be a source of confusion between taxi drivers and visitors.

  7. Yeah, the use of the "u" to represent two completely different vowels isn't a particularly good move.

    But at least it's not an awful faux-Indic transliteration, like Bamrungrasdra ... or worse, something like Paṃruṅraṣṭra. :P

    Personally, if I didn't know Thai I think I'd parse it bum-rung-rad, which are all English words. For Americans, at least, lumping the -ng- together seems more likely.

  8. Hrm, came here from your last comment, and thought it was about the อื vowel. I guess it's because I'm Swedish, but I'm having real trouble with that vowel, because sometimes it is pronounces as our y vowel, and sometimes as ö. Usually in both cases it's transliterated as u.

    Not really sure what I'm aiming at... Maybe that both English and Thai people do not seem to see a distinction, while I do. Maybe you can shed some light on it?

  9. Amazing Thailand...