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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

XXL, 100% Cotton Illiteracy: English T-Shirt Slogans


One thing that you notice when you travel outside the United States is that people almost everywhere wear t-shirts with something written in English. I’m way too lazy to look into this but I would guess that Americans invented the concept of turning humans into walking billboards by putting slogans and advertisement on t-shirts. The Hard Rock CafĂ© pretty much built their entire franchise on t-shirt sales. Their iconic logo was the T-shirt of choice for people all over the world. T-shirts are bumper stickers for people. T-shirts with some sort of slogan are a fact of life everywhere I have ever been.

The lingua franca of t-shirt slogans worldwide is definitely English. I don’t know why this is the case but I can offer up a few theories. English is probably studied as a second language more than any other language in the world. The Simpsons is dubbed into almost every language in the world but I think people just want to watch it in the original. There are probably other important reasons why people study English but none come to mind. So therefore, people who study English probably think that it’s cool to walk around with a t-shirt with something written in English splashed across the front, or back, or both. People who haven’t ever studied English also probably think it’s cool.

A lot of times I get the feeling that the people wearing these shirts haven’t the faintest idea of what they say, whether they have taken an English class or not. How else can you explain a 70 year old Greek woman with a t-shirt emblazoned with “Frankie Loves Hollywood?” I don’ think that there is a 15 year old kid on the planet who would be willing to wear a t-shirt that says “True Love: Mom” if he knew what it meant, like the kid I saw last night. I wanted to punch him myself, or at least give him a wedgie. I once came across a little street urchin wearing a Harvard t-shirt and I thought, “Damn, that school needs to take better care of its alumni.” A Harvard man shining shoes in Chihuahua, Mexico? That ain’t right.

You see lots of slogans that aren’t grammatical, don’t make any sense, or are just plain stupid. The first time that I noticed this phenomenon was in the mid 1980s when people in Europe wore t-shits that said “Relax” and “No Problem.” You would see dozens of these inane shirts every day if you were in a heavily touristed area. There doesn’t seem to be a presiding t-shirt slogan on the tourist trail these days, just lots of shirts with really dumb things written in English—always English. You almost never see t-shirts with something written in French, or Spanish, or Russian, or Arabic, or Chinese. I’m not sure that I can even tell the difference between Chinese or written Japanese but you don’t see either on a shirt.

I was shopping for clothes the other day in shop run by a Chinese family. All of the clothes they sell are manufactured in China (Valencia receives more cargo from China than any other port in Spain). I was looking at their selection of t-shirts when it dawned on me that all of the dumb t-shirts you see were probably manufactured in China. This would explain the sometimes fractured “Engrish” and the senseless slogans.

Lots of American kids get tattoos of Chinese characters without knowing a single thing about the language. For all they know, that Chinese character on their butt may say “Drink Coke.” They just get them because they think that they look cool. I don’t mean to sully the good name of tattoo artists—the most trusted professionals in body mutilations—but I don’t think that you can count on many of them in the United States to know the intricacies of Mandarin Chinese. One little extra line in that character for “Peace and Understanding” in Chinese will change it to “All Deliveries made in Rear.” You need to be careful, especially if you decide to travel to China with your new ink. I'm sure Chinese people laugh their asses off at the tattoos on American hipsters.

The people who pen English sayings on Chinese-made t-shirts are just like those tattoo artists. There is probably some Chinese kid who studied English for three years and now works at some Orwellian Ministry of Annoying T-shirt Slogans. His job is to sit around all day and think up English slogans. Who knows, maybe the kid has a sense of humor and is writing these dumb slogans on purpose. How else can you explain some of these things I have seen people wearing in Valencia:

Too Brown Maybe You Clean Your Lenses
Breakfast • Lunch • Happy Hour
God Save Everyone from Basic Clothes
And this one.

Kykase Stop
The Victoria is worth only


Or this one worn by some middle aged dork:
Young Free Cool

Imagine if these were tattoos? Giving an old t-shirt to Goodwill is a hell of a lot easier than getting an unwanted (and ungrammatical) tattoo removed with laser surgery.

Maybe I will sit in one of the popular tourist spots in Valencia with a red, felt-tipped marker and correct all of the grammatical and syntactical errors that I see on people’s t-shirts. I could put frowning face stickers on the really egregious examples of poor English. Maybe airports can put in scanners in the security queues that spell and grammar check all passengers' t-shirts. I’m sure that the technology already exists. I don’t think that there are freedom of speech laws in any country on earth that would defend a t-shirt that says “I Eat Your Skin.” Taking these shirts away from people is for their own good. Instead of correcting their shirts perhaps it would be better to translate the slogans people wear into the language of the owner.

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