Following instructions

The instruction goes COVER ME or COVER YOURSELF. What are you supposed to do? Well, the verb cover, um, covers a lot of possibilities, so there’s plenty of room for play, amply illustrated in cartoons and other forms of visual/verbal play. Especially common are plays on COVER ME intended as having what I’ll call “gunfire cover” but understood as having some other sense, in particular what I’ll call “(general) placement cover“; and plays on COVER YOURSELF intended as having what I’ll call “corporal-modesty cover” (cover your nakedness) but understood as having (general) placement cover.

Background: a few verbs cover. From NOAD on transitive cover:

1 put something such as a cloth or lid on top of or in front of (something) in order to protect or conceal it [(general) placement cover]

6 [a] aim a gun at (someone) in order to prevent them from moving or escaping. [b] protect (an exposed person) by shooting at an enemy [6b is gunfire cover]

7 record or perform a new version of (a song) originally performed by someone else [recording cover]

8 (of a male animal, especially a stallion) copulate with (a female animal), especially as part of a commercial transaction between the owners of the animals. [copulatory cover]

Placement cover provides the theme song for COVER ME section of this posting: Bruce Springsteen. From Wikipedia:


(#1) You can listen to the 1984 track here

“Cover Me” is a …1984 hit song, written and performed by American rock singer Bruce Springsteen. It was the second single released from his successful album Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen wrote the song for Donna Summer. However, his manager, Jon Landau, decided the song had hit potential, and so he kept it for the upcoming Springsteen album.

The crucial lyrics:

The times are tough now, just getting tougher
This old world is rough, it’s just getting rougher
Cover me, come on baby, cover me
Well I’m looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me
Promise me baby you won’t let them find us
Hold me in your arms, let’s let our love blind us
Cover me, shut the door and cover me
Well I’m looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me

COVER ME. Placement cover (1 above) has a number of transferred and figurative uses (some hinted at in the Springsteen lyrics), well short of the very divergent specialized senses in 6-8. But the verbs above are dramatically different, and so allow for broad humor. Three gag cartoons in which intended gunfire cover is understood as placement cover (#2 and 3) or copulatory cover (#4); recording cover would serve as the basis for a gag cartoon, but I haven’t (yet) found one.


(#2) A Cyanide and Happiness cartoon


(#3) A viral image reproduced on Imgur


(#4) Copulatory cover on DeviantArt

COVER YOURSELF. On to ambiguous signage, and to more subtle ambiguities in cover. This part of the story began with this two-part image (found on Facebook and passed on by Kim Darnell)”


(#5) At the top, the sign; at the bottom, one woman’s response to it

As it turns out, it’s one of many. The story from HuffPo on 5/29/15, by Caroline Bologna, “Sign Told Breastfeeding Moms To Cover Themselves, So They Literally Did”:


(#6) The BFMT model

When the organizers of the Breastfeeding Mama Talk support group came across a sign telling moms to cover themselves while nursing, they had a brilliant response.

The group shared a photo of the sign on its Facebook page — along with two pictures of breastfeeding moms … well, covering themselves.

From their Facebook page:

Thought I would do something different and fun with this!!
I have this picture in the comments except it’s without the two breastfeeding pictures in this meme so that you can add your own breastfeeding picture to it. 🙂 If you post it please hash tag #ThisIsHowWeCoverBFMT

From this, it should be clear that placement cover takes in a lot of territory. The sign, however, is intended as a specific instruction, to women, to cover their breasts while breastfeeding (in public): COVER YOURSELF has a specialized sense of cover, the cover of cover your nakedness, or what I’m calling “corporal-modesty” cover. The BFMT women are choosing to disregard the sign-maker’s intentions by understanding COVER YOURSELF as having general placement cover instead, so they are following the instruction by covering their faces. Note the three different ways of placement-covering someone in #2 (protecting with an umbrella), #3 (putting a blanket on the shoulders), and #5/6 (hiding the face with a cloth); there are, of course, many more.

The OED2 entry for the verb cover is in need of elaboration. Here’s material from the section on the main transitive uses, with some comments of mine:

I.1. ‘to put or lay something over (an object), with the effect of hiding from view, protecting, or enclosing’ [(general) placement cover]

I.3.a. ‘to clothe (the body)’

[This is not separately listed in OED, but the verb is also specifically used for covering private parts of the body (female breasts; genitals or buttocks of either sex) — see the OED‘s early quotes in I.3.a about ‘covering one’s nakedness’ — what I’m calling “corporal-modesty cover“.]

I.4. to cover (one’s head): to put on or wear one’s hat or other head-covering; spec.after it has been taken off as a mark of reverence or respect.

[The specific clause in I.4. is a reference to the custom of a man’s doffing his hat as a sign of respect to a woman or a figure of authority. This is not separately listed in the OED, but the verb is also specifically used for covering one’s head as a matter of religious practice — for women in churches in Roman Catholic and some other Christian traditions and more generally in some Anabaptist (Amish and Mennonite) traditions; for men in Jewish religious practice (the kippah / yarmulke / skullcap); for Muslim men in religious practice (the taqiyah / skullcap) or more generally (the turban for some Shias); for Sikhs generally (the turban); for women in public in Islam (the hijab). I’ll call this “capital-religious cover“.]

Signage notes. Instructions on signs are usually telegraphic (to convey a complex message in a small space), with a compression that introduces ambiguities in the message — ambiguities that sign-makers expect their audiences to weed out by practical reasoning in context. But you can play with them for the sake of a gag, or pointed social commentary.

Three recent postings with cartoons exploiting signage ambiguities:

on 3/10/18 in “scratch and sniff card”: the sign SCRATCH AND SNIFF CARDS

on 5/1/18 in “Another signage ambiguity”: the signs PET AREA and ATTACK DOG

on 6/11/18 in “In case of fire, see therapist”: the signs IN CASE OF FIRE, TAKE STAIRS and IN CASE OF FIRE, BREAK GLASS

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