French/English Market Sign


For decades Mr. Simcha, a Romanian greengrocer, had a store at the corner of St. Lawrence Boulevard (the Main, as it’s known) and rue Napoléon, in Montreal. The building had big hand-painted tin signs on its two street-facing facades. When Mr. Simcha opened the store (I’m guessing it was in the 1960s), merchants were allowed to have signs in any language they pleased. His was in English. Yellow words on a red field.

In the 70s Quebec passed various laws to protect and promote the French language, and English-only signs became illegal. On outdoor signage English wording was allowed if it was half the size of the French equivalent. Eventually Mr. Simcha obediently had his sign repainted, opting for the officially preferred French-only message. His sign painter expunged all the English wording by covering it with a fresh coat of red. On the red tabula rasa, French wording was painted, again in yellow. Now he was “conforme à la loi,” legal.

But. Mais. The English-obliterating coat of red paint must have been defective. Because before long it … vanished. in this photo you can make out most of the English word MARKET under the perfectly bilingual FRUITS. You can see HOME MADE PICKLES under the more detailed CORNICHONS (“pickles”) ET TOMATES À L’ANETH  (“and tomatoes in dill”) CHOUX MARINÉS À LA MAISON (“home-made pickled cabbage”).

The ONS to the left of all this is the tail end of the mercifully bilingual PROVISIONS. Elsewhere featured were BIÈRE (even if you speak English at home, you know what that is), VIN (ditto), CIDRE (ditto) and PORTER (the English word is used in French) as well as LÉGUMES (“vegetables” in French; beans, peas, lentils and so on in English).

I don’t know whether Mr. Simcha ever received a message from the “sign police” (the Apostrophe SS, as singer/commentators Bowser and Blue call them) saying, Get your signs in order; get rid of that “ghost” English. In any event, Mr. Simcha died recently, and the signs are no longer on the building.

-Gerry L’Orange

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