Symbols – how to understand them

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Symbols – definition

symbols A symbol is an object which stands for something else.

redbtn In language it is a reference in speech or in writing which is made to stand for ideas, feelings, events, or conditions.

redbtn A symbol is usually something tangible or concrete which evokes something abstract.


redbtn The following are standard symbols in the context of English culture.

  • The rose often stands for love.
  • The colour red stands for passion.
  • The dove stands for peace.
  • The ace of spades stands for death.
  • The cross stands for Christianity.


redbtn All cultures use symbols which are actual, tangible objects — such as the cross in a Christian church, the Union Jack flag in the UK, or the Statue of Liberty in the USA.

redbtn These standard symbols and others more original are evoked by conscious and deliberate use of language by writers, advertisers and speakers.

redbtn NB! Symbols are evoked or depicted by language. The very language which evokes the symbol is itself a code or symbol!

redbtn Symbols in the context of language use are sometimes created by the use of words such as ‘cross’ or ‘rose’ or ‘blood’.

redbtn The rose has been used so often in connection with love that it has become a symbol of it.

redbtn But the human heart is also used as a symbol for love – so there can be more than one symbol for the same thing.

redbtn Fire is often used as a symbol, both for danger and for human passion — so a single word or object can sometimes symbolise more than one thing.

redbtn The moon is sometimes used as a symbol for the female — because both have a ‘monthly cycle’.

redbtn In literature, a writer such as D.H. Lawrence exploits this symbolic connction by using images of the moon to stand for female sexuality.

redbtn Even when the word ‘moon’ itself is not used explicitly in his work, any pale nocturnal light can have the same symbolic effect in suggesting the female and her sexual nature.

redbtn In a novel, poem, short story or play, symbols are often introduced at the beginning and then developed and sustained throughout the work by means of various literary techniques.

redbtn Sometimes a symbol is created only for the duration of the work in which it is used. This is called ‘context-bound’ — because it does not have symbolic value outside the work.

redbtn For instance, the handkerchief in Shakespeare’s Othello is used as the symbol of Othello’s mistrust of Desdemona, his wife. [This is because it has come into the possession of his ‘rival’, Iago.] The material, tangible object stands for the emotion jealousy, bringing it into dramatic relief for the audience.
redbtn A handkerchief could be used as a completely different symbol in another piece of work.

redbtn Symbols are used very commonly in daily life. Many road signs are symbols, as is the traditional red and white pole for a barber’s shop.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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