Our everyday lives are saturated with symbols that are designed to express ideas. These range from the logos of automobile manufacturers to the buttons on your television remotes. Many of us take these symbols for granted. And even though we know what they stand for we rarely have any understanding of their origins or their secret meanings. Read on as we count down some of the most pervasive and enigmatic symbols in society and the symbol meanings.
9 – The Jesus Fish ( its A Bit Racier Than You Might Think)
This iconic fish symbol, often called the Icthys, is a synonym for the Christian faith and features prominently on everything from billboards to bumper stickers. Early Christians used this symbol because it was an acrostic for the name of Jesus Christ. In other words, in Greek each letter of ICTHYS stood for part of Jesus’ full name, which was spelled out as “Iesous Christos TheouYiosSoter”.
However, going back further the icthys fish symbol had quite a different meaning. In the pagan traditions this symbol was called the ‘vesicapisces’ and symbolized fertility – in particular, the vagina and feminine energy. Try turning the symbol sideways, and it’s pretty self-explanatory.
8 – Female and Male Symbols
Perhaps most popularized by horoscopes and dating services, the symbols for man and woman are two of the most common that we find in our daily lives. But very few people actually know these symbol meanings. In reality, they find their roots in alchemy. Alchemy is an old form of mystical science that includes astrology and chemistry. The male symbol represents the astrological sign for Mars. In earlier forms it had a dot in the circle that stood for the sun or gold. Many think the circle and arrow denote a shield and spear, signifying the god of war which was Mars.
The female symbol on the other hand is thought to have been inspired by a mirror or by a necklace women might have used during that time. They called this astrological symbol chalkos, from which we get the word copper from. It signified Venus who was the dominant female deity to the Greeks.
7 – Bluetooth Runes
That strange little symbol on the side of your Bluetooth devices isn’t just a stylized ‘B’. The inventors of Bluetooth borrowed from Norse mythology in designing their logo, which is a bind-rune. That is the combination of two runes. In Norse mythology Odin passed the gift of runes down to humans. Each rune had its own letter and separate meaning. By combining the runes for ‘H’ – or Hagall – and ‘B’ – or Bjarkan – you end up with the Bluetooth symbol.
But why ‘H’ and ‘B’? They’re actually the initials of a real-life Danish king, Harald Bluetooth; he united a number of tribes back in the 9th century. Today his legacy lives on in the form of Bluetooth technology uniting us to the internet and each other.
6 – The Pause Symbol In Poetry
You are watching one of your favorite movies and the phone rings, so you reach for the remote to hit Pause. Without realizing it you are in fact exercising one of the oldest linguistic tools in the history of literacy. The double bars of the Pause button are something we take for granted and barely think about it. But they have their roots in a very influential poetic tradition. Back in the Greek age the double line indicated a pause – or caesura – in a song or poem where one could take a breath.
5 – The Mystery of On/Off and USB
There are a number of symbols related to computers that we have come to accept at face value in terms of their function. One of the most popular of course is the on/off symbol that features a small vertical line inside a circle. It has become universal, appearing not only on our computers but on T-shirts, posters, and even condoms. In reality, it was meant to signify binary code, with 1 meaning “on” and 0 meaning “off”. Simple, right?
4 – Biohazard Symbol as a Tattoo
The biohazard symbol is another one of the most recognizable symbols in our culture, in part because it is meant to warn us of danger. The creators of the symbol however didn’t have any hidden agendas in designing it, and only wanted something that would look distinctive. However, that didn’t stop others from adapting it to their own meanings by putting it on company logos, video games, and clothes. Some have taken it even further though: in a number of LGBQT friendly communities in urban centers, gay men often tattoo this symbol on themselves in order to indicate that they have HIV or AIDS and to raise public awareness.
3 – Mitsubishi Family Crest
Ever wondered about the different logos that car companies use? From Toyota to Subaru there is often a lot more to these decals than meets the eye, and the Mitsubishi logo is no exception. Used since 1870, the three diamonds arranged in a triangle is actually the adapted family crest of shipping magnate Yataro Iwasaki and the family crest of the Yamanouchi family from the ancient Tosa Clan. The Iwasaki crest was a three tiered water chestnut, or sangai-bishi, while the Tosa Clan’s crest was three oak leaves, or mitsu-gashiwa. Add them together and you get ‘Mitsu-bishi’.
2 – The Democratic Donkey and Republican Elephant
Anyone familiar with American politics will immediately recognize the symbols used to distinguish the two main parties. On the Democrats side, the image of the donkey can be traced back to the 1828 election in which Andrew Jackson was running for president. Because of his stubborn personality, many of his opponents took to calling him a ‘jackass’. Rolling with the punches, he took the insult and adapted it to become a symbol of being strong willed. This was later iconized by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast who used the image of the donkey thereafter to refer to the Democratic Party.
Nast also introduced the elephant symbol into American politics to refer to the opposing Republican Party. In a famous cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1874, he signified the Republicans as an elephant running away from the Democratic donkey dressed up as a lion. There is a certain irony that the strongest political parties in the US found their origins in satire.
1 – Peace Signs and Nuclear Disarmament
The last symbol in our article, and by far one of the most influential is probably the peace sign. Designed by British graphic designer Gerald Holtom in 1958, its original purpose was to protest the use of nuclear weapons. He wanted to use the semaphore alphabet, which is a form of communicating using flags and arm movements, and overlapped the letters N and D in the design to stand for ‘Nuclear Disarmament”.
Later, Holtom revealed that he had also been very depressed at this period in his life and that the peace sign was a stylized stick figure of himself with head down and arms outstretched. Holtom never copyrighted the symbol, which is one of the reasons it appears everywhere, including in the logo for the environmental group Greenpeace.
That concludes our article of some of the more interesting common everyday symbols and the symbol meanings. Were you surprised by any of their origins or can you think of any other popular symbols in everyday life that have an enigmatic backstory? Feel free to leave to your thoughts or suggestions in the comments below.
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