A note on symbols

An observation (inspired partly by JoshS’s musings on Twitter just now) about how symbols work. They work via shared meaning.

There can be exceptions, to be sure. We can have our own personal symbols that we make up.

But what we can’t do is take symbols that already have a meaning, and deploy them in public, and expect the rest of the world to give them our own personal meaning instead of the existing, public meaning.

That’s especially true of symbols that are contested or political.

Like the US flag, for instance. That has a lot of meanings, but one prominent one in the past (I think it’s mostly faded away now) was an in-your-face love-it-or-leave-it brand of patriotism. The Chris Noth character on the original Law and Order always wore a flag as a lapel pin, and I took that as a hint that he was that kind of character. I could have taken it to mean something else, or nothing, but the obvious meaning seemed the most likely one.

It’s a simple point enough.


  1. rnilsson says

    Yes, your private or made-up symbols, when used out of their closed confines, set the manège for a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion.

    Example: When I was a wee one, milk came in glass bottles with a wide neck that had a soft metal cap one could open with the press of a thumb, and then one could pour the milk. This apparatus then made a noise, which I onomatopoetically ascribed to the substance as such. Thus, in our home milk came to be known as “blunk”. I now fear my very old Mum might still be using that word to express a wish for milk and that those caring for her will have a hard time deciphering this conundrum.

    But there may be even more serious consequenses to inappropriate transformogration of semantics from the private into the public domain, like if you invent new words or new meanings of old ones. Just as you said, O.Bee. Particularly so in the absence of visual, contextual or other clues for us poor cipher clerks attempting to make sense of a communication. Blunk, blunk. (Sorry, I mean blink, blink;)

  2. carlie says

    That’s why they call them “symbols”. They’re symbolic of ideas. Intentionally claiming that they mean something different in your case than what they mean to everyone else is trying to pretend that communication and language don’t exist.

  3. John Morales says

    In the previous post the Pope is Roman Catholicism personified; a living symbol.

    (Ostentatious humility FTW!)

  4. Claire Ramsey says

    Yep, Detective Logan was a hot-headed cop with a really simple view of the world, something like “Believe like I do or else. . .” And we know where it got him, don’t we. Banishment to Staten Island and a desk job.

  5. says

    The choice not to wear “symbols” can garner as much reaction as wearing them.

    I don’t know how negatively people act in the US to those unwilling to wear flags (and those I do are like Carlos Delgado, all negative). But in Canada and England, people get VERY confrontational with those who refuse to wear poppies around November 11, as if you’re “unpatriotic” for not doing so. I don’t know of any cases of assault, but I’d bet there are some.

    Those who demand conformity (religion, politics, whatever) have it backwards. They’re not demanding something misshapen be brought back in line. Rather, they’re attempting to warp and pervert the normal into something unnatural.

  6. says

    I must have stopped watching before Logan got banished to a desk job in Staten Island…

    The “blunk” story reminds me of a time when my brother and I were at an ice cream place and he ordered an assortment using his own joke names for the flavors – names that family members understood but no one else did. Omigod how I cringed. (This is not a childhood story, we were both adults at the time.)

    left – they DO?? I did not know that. Golly. I can’t think of anything we have that’s like that – a thing you have to wear. Fights over secularism in school and the pledge etc of course are like that, but they’re not about having to wear a symbol.

    On the other hand of course there was the stupid bullshit about Obama and the wearing of the flag lapel pin – exactly the thing that Chris Noth/Logan wore. But fortunately nobody has yet managed to make it mandatory for the whole population.

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