Language Log on the 'semiotics of barbed wire'

Victor Mair went to Gothenberg, Nebraska last week and visited a local historical museum. When he asked for the most unusual exhibit, he was pointed downstairs to a unique collection of barbed wire fence:

From the way the barbs were wrapped around and woven through the horizontal strands, the ranchers could tell at a glance if the land and animals enclosed within belonged to them — I call them “signature barbs” — sort of like a premodern QR code.

You might be thinking, “dude, it’s just barbed wire!” but I like how every piece is distinct and tells a story of its own. That’s the joy of semiotics, with its signs and symbols representing more than just a word or an instruction. A simple line of twisted metal with sharp point bits at varying distances can tell you whether it was used to keep in animals, protect land, or thwart soldiers in a war. That’s a broad spectrum for a bit of zinc, aluminum alloy, and steel.

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