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A symbol, in its basic sense, is a representational token for a concept or quantity; i.e. an idea, object, concept, quality, etc. In more psychological and philosophical terms, all concepts are symbolic in nature and representations for these concepts are simply token artifacts that are allegorical to (but do not directly codify) a symbolic meaning.
Spoken language, for example, consists of distinct auditory tokens for representing symbolic concepts (words), arranged in an order which further suggests their meaning.
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Nature of symbols
A symbol can be a material object whose shape or origin is related, by nature or convention, to the thing it represents: for instance, the crucifix is the main symbol of Christianity, and the scepter is a traditional symbol of royal power.
A symbol can also be a more or less conventional image (i.e. an icon), or a detail of an image, or even a pattern or color: for example, the olive branch in heraldry represents peace, the halo is a conventional symbol of sainthood in Christian imagery, tartans are symbols of Scottish clans, and the color red is often used as a symbol for socialist movements, especially communism.
More often, a symbol is a conventional written or printed sign (specifically, a glyph), usually standing for anything other than a sound (symbols for sounds are usually called graphemes, letters, logograms, diacritics, etc.). Thus mathematical symbols such as π and + represent quantities and operations, currency symbols represent monetary units, chemical symbols represent elements, and so forth.
Symbols can also be immaterial entities like sounds, words and gestures. The ringing of gongs and bells, and the banging of a judge's gavel, often have conventional meanings in certain contexts; and bowing is a common way to indicate respect. In fact, every word in a natural language is a symbol for some concept or relationship between concepts.
A symbol is usually recognized only within some specific culture, religion, or discipline, but a few hundred symbols are now recognized internationally.
Use of symbols
It is human beings' ability to manipulate symbols that allows them to explore the relationships between ideas, things, concepts, and qualities - far beyond the explorations of which any other species on earth is capable. The discipline of semiotics studies symbols and symbol systems in general; semantics is specifically concerned with the main meaning of words.
Literary works are often admired for their artful use of symbolism, i.e. the use of words, phrases and situations to evoke ideas and feelings beyond their plain interpretations; these uses are the subject of literary semiotics. Religious and metaphysical writings are also known for their use of esoteric symbolism. Alchemical writings made extensive use of symbols for spiritual and chemical processes (which they also saw as symbols of each other). The interpretation of dreams as symbols of one's experiences is a main feature of Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analytical psychology.
The word "symbol" came to the English language, by way of Middle English, Old French, and Latin, from the Greek σύμβολον súmbolon from the root words σύμ- (sym-) meaning "together" and βολή bolḗ "a throw", having the approximate meaning of "to throw together", so "sign, ticket, or contract".
Symbol search engine (http://www.symbols.com)
- Wikipedia (2005). Symbol (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbol). Retrieved March 3, 2005.