Carson Collier

As most of you probably do not know, it is illegal to curse in the commonwealth of Virginia. If caught and found guilty, there is up to a $250 fine for each profanity used. As you can imagine, this law is not enforced very often. Until you take a visit to Virginia Beach and see the signs attached to street lamps all over the boardwalk. (Image 1)



Image 1

Looking at the sign as a whole, we can apply it to some different models. With Saussure’s dyadic model there is a Signified and a Signifier, and the relationship these share creates a sign. “A sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified…” (Chandler, p. 15). In this case the signified would be the actual sign and the signifier would be the indication that you are in a ‘no cursing zone’.

In Peirce’s Model there is the representamen, an interpretant and an object. The representamen is the physical sign itself. The interpretant is that this is a no cursing zone. The object is that the combination of the physical sign and the indication of a “no cursing zone” evoke a feeling of ‘warning’ or ‘no’.


Let us look at the different aspects of the sign. First, we see a big red ‘no’ symbol (Image 2). This aspect of the sign is iconic, it is commonly known to indicate some kind of warning. This indication of a warning is almost instant and you know to look for what the warning is referring to.


Image 2

After our brain processes the ‘warning’ or ‘no’ aspect of the sign, we see a sequence of characters meant to convey profanity. What I find interesting about this, is that any sequence of characters can covey ‘profanity’. This particular order does not have a different meaning then something like this:


Or this:


Does this idea fall under a different set of rules?

Fun Fact
According to the fines associated with this law brought it over $6,000 worth of profit for the city. 


Chandler, D. (2007) Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge.

Irvine, M. “Introduction to Meaning Systems and Cognitive Semiotics“.

Semiotic Elements and Classes of Signs