By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   December 27, 2022

Most traffic signals have lights in red and green, signifying “Stop,” and “Go.” And there’s also usually another one, variously called yellow, amber, or even orange, which supposedly means “Caution” – although some drivers apparently interpret it as saying “Hurry! There’s still time!” Of course, you can’t stop and go at the same time. But you can always be cautious between the changes.

There are many wise sayings about caution – but some of them contradict each other – for instance, “Look before you leap,” as against, “He who hesitates is lost.”

I myself have sat on both sides of this fence, with expressions like “If you don’t do it, you’ll never know what would have happened if you had done it,” and “If you’re careful enough, nothing bad, or good, will ever happen to you.” 

I was five years old, and still living in England on the verge of World War II, when I became aware of a government program called “Air Raid Precautions,” familiarly referred to as “The A.R.P.” At that time, the great fear was of poison gas, dropped from airplanes. (As it happened, this was one horror which never materialized, possibly because Hitler himself had experienced gas attacks when he was in the German army, in the previous World War.)

In this case, the principal precaution was gas masks, which were widely distributed, even to children. And you were supposed to have yours with you, or easily accessible, at all times. Some people obeyed this injunction throughout the seven years of war. This was, of course, only one of numerous cautionary measures, such as air raid shelters, taken to protect the population – many of which were also adopted in the U.S., after what happened at Pearl Harbor had spread the fear of attacks from the air (by which time, my family had moved to America, where there was less danger, but more panic).

But the world has always been full of dangers (in addition to those we create for each other, such as the automobile). Nowadays all kinds of new dangers have been recognized, which have fostered their own types and messages of caution. Even on some of my prescription medicines which, by request, can come in easily opened containers (e.g. for people with arthritis), there is a warning on the cap saying “CAUTION – NOT CHILD-RESISTANT.” It used to be that they had to be more directly protected from us, e.g. with road-signs saying “CAUTION – CHILDREN CROSSING.” Now we must protect them from their own inquisitiveness.

In 1908 there appeared a wonderful book by Hilaire Belloc called Cautionary Verses for Children, which very cleverly and humorously warns against many potentially dangerous practices, as in:

The chief defect of Henry King

Was chewing little bits of string.

At last, he swallowed some, which tied

Itself in little knots inside.

Physicians of the utmost fame,

Were called at once, but, when they came,

They answered, as they took their fees,

‘There is no cure for this disease.

Henry will very soon be dead.’

His parents stood about his bed,

Lamenting his untimely death,

When Henry, with his latest breath,

Cried ‘Oh my friends, be warned by me

That breakfast, dinner, lunch, and tea

Are all the human frame requires.’ –

With that, the wretched child expires.”

But, even in our safety-conscious era, we are used to seeing signs and messages warning of slippery floors, falling rocks, computer scams, and hidden dangers of all kinds. Even vehicles of various kinds are required to make beeping sounds warning that they are backing up. In the early years of the mass automobile, before there were all these protective laws, many dangers could only be laughed at. One story was of a driver pleading innocent to causing an accident only because his vision was obscured by all the safety slogans stuck on his windshield. Then there was the unfamiliar danger of gasoline, especially before there were dashboard indicators. One cautionary verse said:

“My bonnie leaned over the gas-tank,

The height of its contents to see.

He lighted a match to assist him –

Oh, bring back my bonnie to me!”

But there have always been warn-worthy dangers in just being a pedestrian. One of the latest is that, compared with old familiar motor-sounds, the new electric vehicles are very quiet, giving little notice of their approach. 

Let me conclude with what you may consider the ultimate cautionary message: 

It’s possible that my whole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.”  


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