We moved from London to Birmingham a couple of years ago now, and one of the first things I noticed when we arrived were the street signs: extravagant, cast-iron behemoths far removed from London’s restrained licence plates for buildings. Above is a typical street sign in Edgbaston, our then-new neighbourhood; below is an old-style enamelled sign from Wandsworth, our previous one.
Granted, Birmingham’s modern street signs, as used in much of the rest of the city, are significantly less interesting than the black-and-white battleship above, but then the same is also true of London. Birmingham once had standards to maintain; London didn’t.
Anyway, back to the two signs above: useful, legible both. But only the Brummie sign packs in an abbreviation, a tilde and two commas, all while bellowing “God save Queen Victoria!!1!!111” with foam-flecked lips, and for that it is my pick for the coveted Best Street Sign I Have Seen in the Past Two Years award.
Visual impact aside, I did stop to wonder: why the commas? Why the tilde? Most of the sources I could find on the subject (which is to say, very few of them1,2) suggested that the signs hailed from the Victorian era, which, as Robert Bringhurst writes in The Elements of Typographic Style, “was a dark and inflationary age in typography and type design”.3 Perhaps whichever nineteenth-century Black Country ironmonger made this sign had decided, in the fashion of the day, to throw in as many typographical flourishes as he could.
For its part, the tilde is no stranger to abbreviation. Back in 2015, we saw how the tilde was used in the medieval period to replace certain omitted letters:
In the Latinate languages that preceded modern Spanish and Portuguese, a dash or ‘~’ placed above a vowel indicated the omission of a following n or m — a so-called nasal consonant — so that, for example, aurum, or gold, could be abbreviated to aurũ.4
By the nineteenth century, this had morphed into a general tendency to underline the remainder of abbreviated words — the ‘r’ in “Dr.”, the ‘o’ in “№”, and so on.5 Even today, many typefaces indulge themselves when it comes to the numero symbol, whose superscript ‘o’ is often perched on another character. As Jonathan Hoefler demonstrates in his article “The Loveliest Living Fossil”, published at H&Co’s blog, the dash, bullet or equals sign are all suitable scaffolds for the numero’s elevated ‘o’ — and although Jonathan doesn’t explicitly mention it, the tilde is happy to oblige, too.
But wait: this stentorian street sign isn’t Victorian, not by a long shot. The clue is the red-painted number “15”, which refers to the B15 postal district. Postcodes in Britain were a twentieth century innovation, and Birmingham itself was not divided into postal districts until the 1930s at the earliest.6 Thus, the sign for Harborne Road shown above is definitely not Victorian.
I went hunting for an older sign with which to compare, and found one just a few streets away from where we now live in Bournville, a leafy suburb in the south of Birmingham. Here it is:
Its lack of postal district means that it pre-dates the Harborne Road sign, and this Ordnance Survey map suggests that Thorn Road itself was built sometime between 1888 and 1913. This sign may be Victorian, or it may not be, but it is definitely closer to being Victorian than our Harborne Road sign.
Which leads me to ask: what has happened to the tilde? The commas are still in their place in the older sign, but what is this jaunty dash in the tilde’s place? It looks very much as though the later sign, with its tilde, is doing a creditable imitation of the earlier one, with its dash, but that its maker decided to go with (forgive me) a more dashing character. As such, although the tilde can signal an abbreviation in some contexts, Birmingham’s public signage is clearly not one of them. It seems very much as though a tilde was used in the Harborne Road sign, and in others from the 1930s, for no reason other than it looks the part.
The commas? Your guess is as good as mine.
- Neil Elkes, “Call for Return of Historic Street Signs”, Birmingham Mail, 2006. ↢
- Neil Elkes, “Victorian Street Signs in Birmingham Replaced With Aluminium Versions”, Business Live, August–2011. ↢
- Robert Bringhurst, “2.1 Horizontal Motion”, in, 2008, 25-36. ↢
- Rodney Sampson, Nasal Vowel Evolution in Romance, 1999. ↢
- Charles Sanders Peirce and Christian Kloesel J W, “Essay on the Editorial Method”, in Writings of Charles S. Peirce : A Chronological Edition. Vol. 4, 1989, 629. ↢
- “Postcodes”, The British Postal Museum and Archive. ↢