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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.

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

Etymology

The word symbol derives from the Greek σύμβολον symbolon, meaning "token, watchword" from σύν syn "together" and βάλλω bállō " "I throw, put." The sense evolution in Greek is from "throwing things together" to "contrasting" to "comparing" to "token used in comparisons to determine if something is genuine." Hence, "outward sign" of something. The meaning "something which stands for something else" was first recorded in 1590, in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene.[1]

Concepts and definitions

Symbols are a means of complex communication that often can have multiple levels of meaning.[2] Symbols are the basis of all human understanding and serve as vehicles of conception for all human knowledge.[3] Symbols facilitate understanding of the world in which we live, thus serving as the grounds upon which we make judgments.[4] 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; in other words, the meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself but is culturally learned.[2]

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."[5]

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.[6]

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 both linguistics and psychology. Semioticians thus 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 archetypesThe 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 Greek σύμβολον symbolon, meaning "token, watchword" from σύν syn "together" and βάλλω bállō " "I throw, put." The sense evolution in Greek is from "throwing things together" to "contrasting" to "comparing" to "token used in comparisons to determine if something is genuine." Hence, "outward sign" of something. The meaning "something which stands for something else" was first recorded in 1590, in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene.[1]

Concepts and definitions

Symbols are a means of complex communication that often can have multiple levels of meaning.[2] Symbols are the basis of all human understanding and serve as vehicles of conception for all human knowledge.[3] Symbols facilitate understanding of the world in which we live, thus serving as the grounds upon which we make judgments.[4] 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; in other words, the meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself but is culturally learned.[2]

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."[5]

In the book Signs and Symbols, it is stated that

[2] Symbols are the basis of all human understanding and serve as vehicles of conception for all human knowledge.[3] Symbols facilitate understanding of the world in which we live, thus serving as the grounds upon which we make judgments.[4] 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; in other words, the meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself but is culturally learned.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; in other words, the meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself but is culturally learned.[2]

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."[5]

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

In the book Signs and Symbols, it is stated that

[6]

Symbols and semioticsSemiotics 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 both linguistics and psychology. Semioticians thus 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

Paul Tillich argued that, while signs are invented and forgotten, symbols are born and die.[11] 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".[12] 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.[13]

Role of context in symbolism

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.[14]

Context

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