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A red octagon symbolizes "stop" even without the word. Blank stop sign octagon.svg
A red octagon symbolizes "stop" even without the word.
Wearing variously colored ribbons is a symbolic action that shows support for certain campaigns. White ribbon.svg
Wearing variously colored ribbons is a symbolic action that shows support for certain campaigns.

A symbol is a mark, sign, or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship. Symbols allow people to go beyond what is known or seen by creating linkages between otherwise very different concepts and experiences. All communication (and data processing) is achieved through the use of symbols. Symbols take the form of words, sounds, gestures, ideas, or visual images and are used to convey other ideas and beliefs. For example, a red octagon is a common symbol for "STOP"; on maps, blue lines often represent rivers; and a red rose often symbolizes love and compassion. Numerals are symbols for numbers; letters of an alphabet may be symbols for certain phonemes; and personal names are symbols representing individuals. The variable 'x', in a mathematical equation, may symbolize the position of a particle in space.[ citation needed ]


The academic study of symbols is semiotics. In cartography, an organized collection of symbols forms a legend for a map.


The word symbol derives from the late Middle French masculine noun symbole, which appeared around 1380 in a theological sense signifying a formula used in the Roman Catholic Church as a sort of synonym for 'the credo'; by extension in the early Renaissance it came to mean 'a maxim' or 'the external sign of a sacrament'; these meanings were lost in secular contexts. It was during the Renaissance in the mid-16th century that the word took on the meaning that is dominant today, that of 'a natural fact or object evoking by its form or its nature an association of ideas with something abstract or absent'; this appears, for example, in François Rabelais, Le Quart Livre, in 1552. [1] This French word derives from Latin, where both the masculine noun symbolus and the neuter noun symbolum refer to "a mark or sign as a means of recognition." [2] The Latin word derives from the Greek σύμβολον symbolon, from a verb meaning 'throw together, put together, compare,' alluding to the Classical practice of breaking a piece of ceramic in two and giving one half to the person who would receive a future message, and one half to the person who would send it: when the two fit perfectly together, the receiver could be sure that the messenger bearing it did indeed also carry a genuine message from the intended person. [3] A literary or artistic symbol as an "outward sign" of something else is a metaphorical extension of this notion of a message from a sender to a recipient. In English, the meaning "something which stands for something else" was first recorded in 1590, in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene . [4]

Concepts and definitions

Symbols are a means of complex communication that often can have multiple levels of meaning. [5] Symbols are the basis of all human understanding and serve as vehicles of conception for all human knowledge. [6] Symbols facilitate understanding of the world in which we live, thus serving as the grounds upon which we make judgments. [7] In this way, people use symbols not only to make sense of the world around them, but also to identify and cooperate in society through constitutive rhetoric.

Human cultures use symbols to express specific ideologies and social structures and to represent aspects of their specific culture. Thus, symbols carry meanings that depend upon one's cultural background. As a result, the meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself but is culturally learned. [5]

Heinrich Zimmer gives a concise overview of the nature, and perennial relevance, of symbols.

Concepts and words are symbols, just as visions, rituals, and images are; so too are the manners and customs of daily life. Through all of these a transcendent reality is mirrored. There are so many metaphors reflecting and implying something which, though thus variously expressed, is ineffable, though thus rendered multiform, remains inscrutable. Symbols hold the mind to truth but are not themselves the truth, hence it is delusory to borrow them. Each civilisation, every age, must bring forth its own." [8]

In the book Signs and Symbols, it is stated that

A symbol ... is a visual image or sign representing an idea -- a deeper indicator of universal truth. [9]

Symbols and semiotics

Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols, and signification as communicative behavior. Semiotics studies focus on the relationship of the signifier and the signified, also taking into account the interpretation of visual cues, body language, sound, and other contextual clues. Semiotics is linked with linguistics and psychology. Semioticians not only study what a symbol implies but also how it got its meaning and how it functions to make meaning in society. Symbols allow the human brain continuously to create meaning using sensory input and decode symbols through both denotation and connotation.

Psychoanalysis, rhetoric, and archetypes

An alternative definition of symbol, distinguishing it from the term sign was proposed by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In his studies on what is now called Jungian archetypes, a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for its referent. He contrasted a sign with a symbol: something that is unknown and that cannot be made clear or precise. An example of a symbol in this sense is Christ as a symbol of the archetype called self . [10]

Kenneth Burke described Homo sapiens as a "symbol-using, symbol making, and symbol misusing animal" to suggest that a person creates symbols as well as misuses them. One example he uses to indicate what he means by the misuse of symbol is the story of a man who, when told that a particular food item was whale blubber, could barely keep from throwing it up. Later, his friend discovered it was actually just a dumpling. But the man's reaction was a direct consequence of the symbol of "blubber" representing something inedible in his mind. In addition, the symbol of "blubber" was created by the man through various kinds of learning.

Burke goes on to describe symbols as also being derived from Sigmund Freud's work on condensation and displacement, further stating that symbols are not just relevant to the theory of dreams but also to "normal symbol systems". He says they are related through "substitution", where one word, phrase, or symbol is substituted for another in order to change the meaning.[ clarification needed ] In other words, if one person does not understand a certain word or phrase, another person may substitute a synonym or symbol in order to get the meaning across. However, upon learning the new way of interpreting a specific symbol, the person may change his or her already-formed ideas to incorporate the new information.

Jean Dalby Clift says that people not only add their own interpretations to symbols, they also create personal symbols that represent their own understanding of their lives: what she calls "core images" of the person. Clift argues that symbolic work with these personal symbols or core images can be as useful as working with dream symbols in psychoanalysis or counseling. [11]

William Indick suggests that the symbols that are commonly found in myth, legend, and fantasy fulfill psychological functions and hence are why archetypes such as "the hero," "the princess" and "the witch" have remained popular for centuries. [12]

Symbolic value

Symbols can carry symbolic value in three primary forms: Ideological, comparative, and isomorphic. [13] Ideological symbols such as religious and state symbols convey complex sets of beliefs and ideas that indicate "the right thing to do". Comparative symbols such as prestigious office addresses, fine art, and prominent awards indicate answers to questions of "better or worse" and "superior or inferior". Isomorphic symbols blend in with the surrounding cultural environment such that they enable individuals and organizations to conform to their surroundings and evade social and political scrutiny. Examples of symbols with isomorphic value include wearing a professional dress during business meetings, shaking hands to greet others in the West, or bowing to greet others in the East. A single symbol can carry multiple distinct meanings such that it provides multiple types of symbolic value. [13]

Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich argued that, while signs are invented and forgotten, symbols are born and die. [14] There are, therefore, dead and living symbols. A living symbol can reveal to an individual hidden levels of meaning and transcendent or religious realities. For Tillich a symbol always "points beyond itself" to something that is unquantifiable and mysterious; symbols open up the "depth dimension of reality itself". [15] Symbols are complex, and their meanings can evolve as the individual or culture evolves. When a symbol loses its meaning and power for an individual or culture, it becomes a dead symbol. When a symbol becomes identified with the deeper reality to which it refers, it becomes idolatrous as the "symbol is taken for reality." The symbol itself is substituted for the deeper meaning it intends to convey. The unique nature of a symbol is that it gives access to deeper layers of reality which are otherwise inaccessible. [16]

Role of context in symbolism

A symbol's meaning may be modified by various factors including popular usage, history, and contextual intent.

Historical meaning

The history of a symbol is one of many factors in determining a particular symbol's apparent meaning. Consequently, symbols with emotive power carry problems analogous to false etymologies. [17]


The context of a symbol may change its meaning. Similar five-pointed stars might signify a law enforcement officer or a member of the armed services, depending upon the uniform.

Symbols in cartography

The three categories of cartographic symbol shapes Cartographic Symbols.jpg
The three categories of cartographic symbol shapes

Symbols are used in cartography to communicate geographical information (generally as point, line, or area features). [18] As with other symbols, visual variables such as size, shape, orientation, texture, and pattern provide meaning to the symbol. [19] According to semiotics, map symbols are "read" by map users when they make a connection between the graphic mark on the map (the sign), a general concept (the interpretant), and a particular feature of the real world (the referent). Map symbols can thus be categorized by how they suggest this connection: [20] [21]

A symbolic action is an action that symbolizes or signals what the actor wants or believes. The action conveys meaning to the viewers. Symbolic action may overlap with symbolic speech, such as the use of flag burning to express hostility or saluting the flag to express patriotism. [22] In response to intense public criticism, businesses, organizations, and governments may take symbolic actions rather than, or in addition to, directly addressing the identified problems. [23]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sign</span> Entity whose presence indicates the probable existence of something else

A sign is an object, quality, event, or entity whose presence or occurrence indicates the probable presence or occurrence of something else. A natural sign bears a causal relation to its object—for instance, thunder is a sign of storm, or medical symptoms a sign of disease. A conventional sign signifies by agreement, as a full stop signifies the end of a sentence; similarly the words and expressions of a language, as well as bodily gestures, can be regarded as signs, expressing particular meanings. The physical objects most commonly referred to as signs generally inform or instruct using written text, symbols, pictures or a combination of these.

Semiotics is the systematic study of sign processes (semiosis) and meaning making. Semiosis is any activity, conduct, or process that involves signs, where a sign is defined as anything that communicates something, usually called a meaning, to the sign's interpreter. The meaning can be intentional such as a word uttered with a specific meaning, or unintentional, such as a symptom being a sign of a particular medical condition. Signs can also communicate feelings and may communicate internally or through any of the senses: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory (taste). Contemporary semiotics is a branch of science that studies meaning-making and various types of knowledge.

Described by Jean Baudrillard, the concept of hyperreality captures the inability to distinguish "The Real" from the signifier of it. This is more prominent in technologically advanced societies. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins. It allows the merging of physical reality with virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR), and human intelligence with artificial intelligence (AI).

In semiotics, a sign is anything that communicates a meaning that is not the sign itself to the interpreter of the sign. The meaning can be intentional, as when a word is uttered with a specific meaning, or unintentional, as when a symptom is taken as a sign of a particular medical condition. Signs can communicate through any of the senses, visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or taste.

A referent is a person or thing to which a name – a linguistic expression or other symbol – refers. For example, in the sentence Mary saw me, the referent of the word Mary is the particular person called Mary who is being spoken of, while the referent of the word me is the person uttering the sentence.

In semiotics, the value of a sign depends on its position and relations in the system of signification and upon the particular codes being used.

In semiotics, a modality is a particular way in which information is to be encoded for presentation to humans, i.e. to the type of sign and to the status of reality ascribed to or claimed by a sign, text, or genre. It is more closely associated with the semiotics of Charles Peirce (1839–1914) than Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) because meaning is conceived as an effect of a set of signs. In the Peircean model, a reference is made to an object when the sign is interpreted recursively by another sign, a conception of meaning that does in fact imply a classification of sign types.

In semiotics, denotation is the surface or the literal meaning, the definition most likely to appear in a dictionary.

In semiotics, connotation arises when the denotative relationship between a signifier and its signified is inadequate to serve the needs of the community. A second level of meanings is termed connotative. These meanings are not objective representations of the thing, but new usages produced by the language group.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Representation (arts)</span> Signs that stand in for and take the place of something else

Representation is the use of signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation that people organize the world and reality through the act of naming its elements. Signs are arranged in order to form semantic constructions and express relations.

In semiotics, the study of sign processes (semiosis), the meaning of a sign is its place in a sign relation, in other words, the set of roles that the sign occupies within a given sign relation.

The Symbolic is the order in the unconscious that gives rise to subjectivity and bridges intersubjectivity between two subjects; an example is Jacques Lacan's idea of desire as the desire of the Other, maintained by the Symbolic's subjectification of the Other into speech. In the later psychoanalytic theory of Lacan, it is linked by the sinthome to the Imaginary and the Real.

Charles Sanders Peirce began writing on semiotics, which he also called semeiotics, meaning the philosophical study of signs, in the 1860s, around the time that he devised his system of three categories. During the 20th century, the term "semiotics" was adopted to cover all tendencies of sign researches, including Ferdinand de Saussure's semiology, which began in linguistics as a completely separate tradition.

Social semiotics is a branch of the field of semiotics which investigates human signifying practices in specific social and cultural circumstances, and which tries to explain meaning-making as a social practice. Semiotics, as originally defined by Ferdinand de Saussure, is "the science of the life of signs in society". Social semiotics expands on Saussure's founding insights by exploring the implications of the fact that the "codes" of language and communication are formed by social processes. The crucial implication here is that meanings and semiotic systems are shaped by relations of power, and that as power shifts in society, our languages and other systems of socially accepted meanings can and do change.

Visual semiotics is a sub-domain of semiotics that analyses the way visual images communicate a message.

The semiotics of social networking discusses the images, symbols and signs used in systems that allow users to communicate and share experiences with each other. Examples of social networking systems include Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Semiotics of Fashion is the study of fashion and how humans signify specific social and cultural positions through dress. Ferdinand de Saussure defined semiotics as "the science of the life of signs in society". Semiotics is the study of signs and just as we can interpret signs and construct meaning from text we can also construct meaning from visual images such as fashion. Fashion is a language of signs that non-verbally converse meanings about individuals and groups. It holds a symbolic and communicative role having the capacity to express one's unique style, identity, profession, social status, and gender or group affiliation.

The semiotics of dress is a term used to refer to the design and customs associated with dress (clothing), as patterned to a kind of symbolism that has rules and norms. It is the study of how people use clothing and adornments to signify various cultural and societal positions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Signified and signifier</span>

In semiotics, signified and signifier stand for the two main components of a sign, where signified pertains to the "plane of content", while signifier is the "plane of expression". The idea was first proposed in the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the two founders of semiotics.

In art, symbolic language refers to the use of characters or images to represent concepts. Symbolic language in art uses imagery to communicate meaning by displaying an accessible concept, the signifier, to represent a signified concept.


  1. Alain Rey et al., eds., Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, new edition, vol. 2 (Paris: Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1995), p. 2082.
  2. Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. 688.
  3. Alain Rey et al., eds., Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, new edition, vol. 2 (Paris: Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1995), p. 2082.
  4. Online Etymological Dictionary
  5. 1 2 Womack, Mari. Symbols and Meaning: A Concise Introduction. California: AltaMira Press, 2005.
  6. Langer, Susanne K. A Theory of Art, Developed From: Philosophy in a New Key. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.
  7. Palczewski, Catherine, and Ice, Richard, and Fritch, John. Rhetoric in Civic Life. Pennsylvania: Strata Publishing, Inc., 2012.
  8. Zimmer, Heinrich (1969). Campbell, Joseph (ed.). Philosophies of India (9. paperback print. ed.). Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN   0-691-01758-1.
  9. Dorling Kindersley Limited. Signs and Symbols. p.6. ISBN   978-0-7566-3393-6. 2008
  10. Christ, A symbol of the self CW vol 9i Aion RKP 1958
  11. Jean Dalby Clift, Core Images of the Self: A Symbolic Approach to Healing and Wholeness. Crossroad, 1992. [ page needed ]
  12. Indick, William. Ancient Symbology in Fantasy Literature: A Psychological Study. Jefferson: McFarland &, 2012. Print.
  13. 1 2 Schnackenberg, Andrew K.; Bundy, Jonathan; Coen, Corinne; Westphal, James (2019). "Capitalizing on Categories of Social Construction: A Review and Integration of Organizational Research on Symbolic Management Strategies". Academy of Management Annals. 13 (2): 375–413. doi:10.5465/annals.2017.0096. S2CID   150656804.
  14. Tillich, Paul (1964). Theology of Culture . Oxford University Press. pp.  58. ISBN   0195007115.
  15. Tillich, Paul (1964). Theology of Culture . Oxford University Press. pp.  59. ISBN   0195007115.
  16. Tillich, Paul (1964). Theology of Culture . Oxford University Press. pp.  54. ISBN   0195007115.
  17. Compare: Basso, Michele (1982). Eschatological symbolism in the Vatican Necropolis. Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana. p. 700. Retrieved 2019-01-05. In a late period the Greeks made [Pan] the incarnation of All (giving a false etymology to his name, which is really connected with the pastures), that is to say, the universe.
  18. Tyner, Judith A. (2010). Principles of map design. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN   9781606235447. OCLC   437300476.
  19. Dent, Borden D.; Torguson, Jeffrey; Hodler, T. W. (2008-08-21). Cartography : thematic map design (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN   978-0072943825. OCLC   184827987.
  20. MacEachren, Alan (1995) How Maps Work: Representation, visualization, and design, New York: Guilford Press
  21. Dent, Borden D. (1999). Cartography : thematic map design (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN   0697384950.
  22. Bagossy, Renate. The Difficulty of the Amendment Process of the Constitution of the United States of America and Freedom of Speech and its limits . GRIN Verlag; 2008-08-11 [cited 5 November 2012]. ISBN   9783640129546. p. 16–17.
  23. Bednar, Michael Kay. How Symbolic Action Affects the Media as a Governance Mechanism . ProQuest; 2008. ISBN   9780549738817. p. 17.