Symbol Meaning

What is Symbol:

A symbol is a sensitive and non-verbal representation of a complex idea, which results from a process of assimilation and synthesis of said idea in a culture. This sensitive representation can be a graphic, visual, auditory or figurative element. Therefore, a symbol arises from a process of conventionalization of a concept and the way of expressing it different from verbal language.

The word derives from the Latin term symbol, and this comes from the Greek σύμβολον (symbolon). It is formed from the root without, which means ‘with’, ‘together’ or ‘united’, and of whale, which means ‘launch’. Therefore, in an etymological sense a symbol is that which is thrown to unite.

This means that around a symbol there is a social convention that allows all actors to give the same meaning to the symbol.

In a figurative sense, it is said that when a person has consolidated great influence in the social environment, he becomes a symbol. For example: "The singer Madonna is a symbol of modern femininity", a phrase attributed to the designer Donatella Versace.

Symbols function

Symbols have the function of transmitting complex or abstract meanings, the density of which is difficult to summarize in everyday language. For example, feelings, religious values, social values, numerical values, cultures, nationalities, ideologies, danger and anti-values, among others.

They do not explain concepts as language does, but they allow those concepts to be communicable and understandable, since they do not operate at the logical level but rather unconsciously and subconsciously.

Therefore, symbols allow mediation between the visible and the invisible, the concrete and the abstract. The symbol also has a unifying force, that is, it manages to synthesize various levels of significance in a single element.

Because they facilitate the processes of understanding reality, symbols have an educational and even therapeutic importance.

Finally, understanding the symbol allows the individual to recognize himself as belonging to a sociocultural group.

Characteristics of symbols

  • They are part of the human way of existing;
  • They are representative;
  • They are indivisible;
  • They are collective, not individual;
  • They also have an aesthetic vocation;
  • They are perceptible at the subconscious or unconscious level;
  • They are significant.
  • The effectiveness of a symbol depends on the validity of its use and meaning in a certain culture. That is why it is possible:
    • that the origin of a symbol is forgotten but still carries the meaning of the concept (for example, the symbol of medicine);
    • that the meaning of the symbol is transformed due to a change in historical conditions (for example, the swastika).

Types of symbols

There are as many types of symbols as there are cultural expressions and social spheres of interaction. Thus, symbols can be classified according to their style, function or scope of circulation. We can mention here some of the most widespread symbols that we find in Western culture.

Graphic symbols

With graphic symbols we mean the characters that represent sounds or ideas, depending on the type of writing. In the case of alphabets, each character represents a sound.

There are other types of writing in which each character represents concepts. For example, numbers, pictograms, hieroglyphs, ideograms, etc.

Scientific symbols

It is a series of graphic representations of scientific notions that describe operations, abstractions, concepts, materials, etc. For example, the symbols of international measurement systems (W, ºC, ºF, Hz), symbols of biology (♀, ♂, RH-, RH +), geometric symbols (º, π), mathematical symbols (+, -, ÷, x).

A very clear example are chemical symbols. They are made up of letters and numbers that are used to represent chemical elements. For example, H₂O is the representation of the chemical composition of water, composed of two molecules of hydrogen (H) and one of oxygen (O).

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