Symbols You Don't Know the Meaning & Origins of
What's the radiation symbol? Where does π come from? Why is & called an ampersand?! Let's decode everyday symbols and the meanings behind them!Knowledge
Symbols are everywhere; on traffic signs, on logos, on our phones, and even hand gestures are a kind of symbol. But have you ever wondered where all those universal squiggles and swoops come from? Let's decode everything from ancient @ signs to confusing controller buttons, as we analyze the secret origins of everyday symbols.
Be honest, how many times have you tried to plug in a USB, only to flip it over and over, struggling to figure out which way it plugs in? But what’s even more humbling is seeing that weird little trident symbol on the port and having no idea what it’s meant to be! The circle, square, and triangle, what do they mean?
The three-pronged USB symbol was modeled after the trident wielded by Poseidon, the ancient Greek God of the Sea. The three shapes at the trident’s points are there to signify the variation in peripherals that can all be connected via a Universal Serial Bus or USB. As such, the trident was designed to symbolize the technological power USBs have; being able to connect a wide range of other devices.
If you hold up your index and middle fingers, it can mean a number of different things. It can be a sign of peace, a symbol of victory, or a very rude gesture in the UK, depending on which way round the fingers are held! But the inception of the two-fingered salute is believed to be older and more gruesome than most Brits realize.
At least one meaning of the gesture traces its origins back to the Hundred Years War, which was fought over 116 years, pretty apt name there, between France and England. The legend states that during that conflict, the French would remove the middle and index fingers of English longbowmen they captured before returning them, as a man without those fingers was useless as an archer.
It’s said that during that time, boastful English longbowmen who weren’t captured would raise their two fingers defiantly, essentially saying "Look, I can still fight"! While pretty badass, that may just be a legend.
English longbows were famously larger and harder to wield than other bows. Most soldiers needed to use three fingers in order to pull back on the string, meaning it would make more sense for the gesture to include the ring finger as well as the middle and index, making it closer to a boy scout’s salute!
Of course, you could also argue that if the bows needed three fingers to wield, chopping off two was as good as chopping off three. Whether true or not, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill played a large role in re-popularizing the gesture towards the start of the Second World War back in 1941.
Around that time, he was first photographed flashing the V shape with his fingers, which soon became the allied sign for victory, as V was the first letter in ‘Victory’ not only in English but also in French and Flemish, the main languages of Britain’s Non-English speaking allies.
Game Controller Icons 🎮
Here's one for all the console gamers. You might be so good at gaming that you can speedrun Dark Souls in less than 30 minutes, or thrash all your friends and even the pros in Call of Duty, but do you know what the circle, square, X, and triangle symbols on the buttons on a PlayStation controller mean?
The answer to that question was supposedly figured out by nerds a while back. The buttons on the Sony controller appear to refer to the Mario franchise. Specifically, they’re the shapes magikoopa enemies shoot from their wands in the classic Super Mario World games.
But if you look closely there’s no X! The Magikoopa only shoots out a triangle, circle, and square those sparkles aren’t Xs. And you can see that clearly in the official art of the characters. Loads of people still believe that misconception, though. The actual rationale behind the buttons is a little more convoluted.
According to Sony’s Teiyu Goto, who chose the symbols, Sony wanted their controller to stand out from their competitors at SEGA and Nintendo, who used lettered buttons. Goto decided on easy-to-recognize shapes, each of which had a meaning.
The triangle is at the top because it points upwards. The square represents a piece of paper or document, as Sony believed that button would be used mostly for menus. The Circle and X buttons represent yes and no, or confirm and deny respectively.
That is where some cultural confusion comes into play, in Japan, a circle and a cross take the place of a tick and a cross in the west. It meant that in many early PlayStation games, the inputs of the circle and cross were switched: in Japan, you press circle to confirm, whereas in the West, it was X. It’s only on the fifth PlayStation, that Sony made X the confirm button in Japan.
Car manufacturer Toyota’s symbol is simple, easy to recognize, and honestly, a little confusing. Cars have four wheels, and yet their logo is three circles? Or is it meant to depict a cowboy? Well, the logo was chosen way back in 1936 and wasn’t designed in-house.
Instead, it was the winner of a logo design competition, and it beat out 46,000 other entries. While the circles may seem random, individual elements from the design can be separated from the others in order to spell out the word Toyota.
Heart Shape ❤
Have you ever wondered why that weird, bumpy, upside-down triangle is called a heart shape? If your actual heart was shaped like that there’d be something seriously wrong with you. A more romantic internet theory found all over Pinterest boards and boomer Facebook posts is that it represents two hearts side by side.
It’s also completely unfounded and requires a lot of artistic license to claim that it looks like that. So, if it doesn’t look like a real heart, or even two hearts, where does the heart symbol come from?
The origin of the shape dates back several hundred years BCE. Back then, there was a popular little plant called silphium. That fennel had heart-shaped bulbs and was found along the North African coast, likely near the city of Cyrene and the ancient Greeks loved it. They were so crazy about that plant they even put it on some of their coins.
Why was that little plant so popular? It had a number of uses, but its most important role was as a form of contraception. Back then if you wanted to avoid having kids, your options were limited, namely to taking silphium. And so, the plant became so popular, that it actually went extinct sometime around the second century BCE.
Silphium’s connotations with sweet lovemaking are perhaps why its distinct shape became synonymous with love and, for poetic license, the heart. That theory has its flaws though; for starters, the heart shape as we understand it only began popping up in art from the 1250s onwards, over a thousand years after the extinction of silphium.
That gap is pretty hard to explain. Other theories posit the shape is meant to resemble a well-endowed chest, a butt, or even male privates if viewed upside down.
Radiation Symbol ☢️
If you saw the radiation symbol in the wild, you might think it was alerting you to a cool fidget spinner factory nearby! In reality, that symbol warns the viewer of nearby dangerous radioactivity.
It was first sketched by members of a Berkley research group headed by Nels Garden in 1946. The symbol was initially magenta on a blue background, as Nels believed the colors were seen less frequently and thus, would stand out more.
The colors were later switched to magenta on yellow, before eventually standardizing as black on yellow as it makes the shapes more clearly discernible from a greater distance. As for the symbol itself, Nels explained that it is meant to represent radioactivity escaping from an atom.
Biohazard Symbol ☣
Understood universally as the sign for biohazardous materials, the symbol looks like a gothic ink blot test. The symbol itself is simple enough; a circle trisected by three black, interlocking, tendril-like circles that peter out towards the rim.
The symbol was created by Dow Chemical engineers in 1966 and had to adhere to a set of guidelines ensuring the symbol was nondescript and recognizable. The design they came up with broadly suggests the idea of a physical organism being disrupted by a harmful agent. Essentially, it represents a single element torn apart by a malicious substance.
The Hyundai logo works because it’s so simple. You might think that it's an italicized H inside a circle and nothing more. However, according to the company itself, the logo is meant to resemble two men shaking hands, as viewed from the side. Hyundai states the logo is meant to represent prosperity and the healthy relationship Hyundai has with their customers.
Bluetooth; is the technology that uses radio frequencies to allow devices to share information wirelessly over short distances. It’s truly a game-changer! Without it, we’d still be stuck in the dark age of wired headphones, where just putting them in your pocket for a moment would tangle them in a knot so tight it’d make a sailor cry.
Looking at the symbol for it though, you may think it’s simply a stylized letter B, but there’s actually a lot of meaning hiding in those hard lines. The design draws influence from Nordic runes; the symbols that made up the written language of the Vikings. As the symbols were usually carved into stone or wood, they were entirely comprised of straight lines rather than curves.
Imagine trying to carve a perfect circle into a tree and you’ll get it. The Bluetooth symbol is what’s called a bind rune, which is two runes combined into one. The two runes making up the Bluetooth bind rune are the Viking equivalents for the letters H and B.
Those letters pay homage to a legendary Norse king by the name of Harald Bluetooth! Harald’s greatest accomplishment was in uniting various disparate Norse peoples under one banner, kind of like how modern Bluetooth is designed to connect various pieces of tech.
Equals Sign (=)
Have you ever thought about how much time the equals sign saves you when doing math? Before the advent of the equals symbol, mathematicians would painstakingly write the phrase is equal to every time they wrote out an equation. Thankfully in 1557, along came mathematics superhero Robert Recorde and his book, The Whetstone of Witte.
While working on the book, Recorde grew tired of writing "is equal to" over and over again. Unlike other loser mathematicians before him, however, he decided to do something about it by creating the equals symbol.
Recorde represented the idea of an equation being equal by creating a sign made of two equal lines. The image below shows one of the first-ever, a little longer than nowadays, but he’s getting people used to the idea.
Peace Symbol ☮
The universal symbol for tree-huggers and hippies the world over, the peace symbol is as recognizable as it is confusing. Unlike other cryptic symbols, we actually know when and where that one came from: The Direct Action Committee or DAC in 1958.
The DAC was opposed to nuclear weapons and created the symbol as a universal sign for nuclear disarmament. A popular misconception is that the symbol represents the combined semaphore signs for N and D or nuclear disarmament. However, that is just a pleasant coincidence.
According to Gerald Holtom, a professor of design and member of the DAC, the symbol takes inspiration from the incredibly disturbing painting “Third of May 1808” by Francisco Goya. The painting depicts a helpless peasant about to be mowed down by soldiers.
According to Holtom, the lines of the symbol represent a dejected man placing their arms out to the side, in a display of weary innocence. If you flip the individual in Goya’s painting, you can see the shape of the well-known symbol. So, next time you see a peace sign, remember it’s not a happy-go-lucky symbol; it’s a somber reminder of the cost of war.
If you enjoy channel surfing as much as me, you’re probably intimately familiar with this icon. The power symbol or simply the on symbol, is comprised of a circle with a vertical line at the top and adorns TV remotes the world over. The symbol is derived from binary, which is the language of 1s and 0s that computers use to relay information across their circuit boards.
The power symbol is simply a combination of those two characters: the zero as the base, and the 1 at the top! That makes sense when you think about it; 01 is, after all, the first combination of those numbers in binary. Hence, 01 represents something starting, beginning, or powering up.
The Crown 👑
Throughout human history, and across multiple cultures, the crown has signified one thing: power. One theory to explain it is that in Christianity, angels are often depicted with halos around their heads. As many Kings claimed to rule via divine right, they were appointed by God, the crown could be said to have holy connotations.
However, that theory doesn’t hold much water. For starters, the widespread precursor to the traditional crown is the diadem. Those were worn by Persian monarchs by at least 400 CE, some Greek Gods are depicted wearing them around the same time, and the ancient Egyptians were fashioning diadems by 2465 BCE.
Even the world’s oldest crown, known as the Copper-Age crown, discovered in the Judaean desert, was created somewhere between 3200 and 4000 BCE. So, diadems and even crowns themselves were around long before Christianity.
So where does that leave us? Sadly, just with theories, but we might be overthinking it. After all, crowns just make sense. They’re made of expensive metals or adorned with jewels most people can’t afford, demonstrating wealth.
They’re also placed on the head so they can be clearly seen by others, as well as hinting at a greater power from above. And if they happen to make you look a little taller, that’s good too! Another theory is that crowns may have evolved from helmets, the most powerful and important people on the battlefield having the sturdiest and most elaborate.
Thumbs Up 👍
The thumbs-up is normally a gesture of approval. But have you ever wondered why we raise our thumbs to confirm or encourage things? The answer takes us way back to the fights in the Colosseums of ancient Rome.
When one warrior would best another in gladiatorial combat, they would expectedly turn to face the most important person in attendance, whether it be a city official or the Roman Emperor himself. That individual would then make a gesture to indicate the fate of the losing warrior.
Thumbs up, it might surprise you to learn, meant death. The thumb is thought to represent the blade and holding it up grimly meant continue. So, the thumbs up is an affirmation, it’s just less “good job” and more “yes, please do murder”.
But when the loser was spared, it wasn't a thumbs down. Instead, the official would place their thumb in their other hand, as if they were sheathing a blade.
It’s thought that the thumbs down came into existence because it’s more immediate and easier to comprehend, one is the opposite of the other, after all, and we love those sorts of things.
Yin and Yang ☯︎
The Yin and Yang symbols have been around for a long time, in fact, their first use was dated back to the 14th century BCE. In the 3400-odd years they’ve been around, the symbols have become strongly associated with Taoism, but also adorn the walls of yoga moms the world over.
The symbol itself represents the balance between two complementary forces, each containing a small aspect of the other. This can be linked to many concepts, such as morality and spirituality, though the visual has a surprisingly literal origin.
That’s because Yin literally translates to the dark side of the mountain, while Yang translates to the light side of the mountain. The symbol can thusly be viewed as a stylized representation of a mountaintop from above one side shady, the other bright, with inclines and slopes on each side altering the shadows.
Inverted Cross 𐕣
If you knew a metalhead, goth, or emo in high school, there’s a good chance they sported the edgy upside-down cross. That little symbol is spraypainted on walls, hangs from necklaces, and even adorns the arms of disobedient, anti-establishment individuals everywhere.
If you’ve ever wondered where that blatantly anti-Christian symbol comes from, the answer might surprise you, because it’s Christianity! One of the most widely used anti-religious symbols in the world is, in fact, a religious symbol. Specifically, it’s the symbol of Saint Peter, the guy outside the Pearly Gates. In real life, Peter is the patron Saint of bakers, cobblers, locksmiths, and other professions.
He was also one of the twelve apostles, and for his troubles, was martyred. Before his execution at the hands of the Romans, Peter apparently requested to be crucified upside down, because he felt unworthy to die the same way Christ did. For most of history, the inverted cross, also known as the Petrine Cross, was in fact not a symbol of defiance, but a mark of devotion and sign of appreciation towards Peter.
It was only in the 20th Century and the advent of metal music, particularly black metal, that the symbol gained its anti-Christian connotations. Likely that was just because it makes sense, as an act of rebellion, to take a holy symbol and turn it upside-down. So, next time you want to annoy a metalhead; compliment their devotion to Saint Peter.
If you don’t remember your 10th grade math: Pi, represented by the Greek letter π, is equal to about 3.141. As Pi can be used to figure out the area and circumference of a circle, along with many of your other circular needs, it’s a very important number.
Pi’s discovery is attributed to Archimedes of Syracuse sometime around 250 BCE, but he didn’t create that symbol. For that, we need to look no further than 18th-century mathematician William Jones. Jones got tired of writing Pi out over and over again, so he decided to come out with a shorthand. He settled on the first letter of the Greek word for perimeter, exactly what he was using the number to calculate.
The ampersand is a wonderful character. The squiggly little guy can turn any two letters into an iconic brand, like H&M, A&W, and M&M! It’s a handy way to abbreviate the word "and" but what does that 8 with a tail have to do with the word "and"? Well, a lot more than you might think!
The symbol’s story started back in ancient Rome, where Latin was the common parlance. In Latin, the word "et" means "and"; you may have heard it in the phrase “Et tu, Brute?” As Latin was a language that just refused to die, writers continued to use words and phrases from it long after Rome’s fall.
The written Et evolved over the centuries, with the E and t getting more and more smooshed together, likely to save room on the pages upon which it was written. While the exact date when "et" morphed into the modern ampersand can’t be pinpointed, that’s where it came from!
We may have cracked the case for the symbol, but where does that weird name ampersand come from? In the 1800s, the ampersand was at the height of its popularity, but the symbol was just called "and" at the time. The "and" symbol was so common, in fact, that it was often taught in European schools alongside the alphabet as a sort of unofficial 27th letter.
When writing the alphabet out, & would come after Z. Teachers realized pretty quickly, however, that saying “X, Y, Z, and And” out loud was awkward, and didn’t make learning letters any easier for kids. So, the method for reciting the alphabet became “X, Y, Z, and per se, And”.
Per Se means by itself, so the phrase was essentially there for a verbal breather. Over the years, in the mouths of babbling schoolchildren, and per se and eventually morphed into ampersand. Furthermore, there’s one more interesting symbol linked to the very same source!
The origins of the mathematical plus or addition sign (+) can also be linked back to Et! The little cross that makes up the symbol 🙳 is derived from where the E and t meet. Makes sense, as "and" and plus basically mean the same thing. Before that, mathematicians often just used the letters P and M to denote plus and minus. The symbols we know today were first printed in 1489, and slowly gained in popularity.
The mascot for Wendy’s food chain, who’s been happily selling us cheesed potatoes since 1969, may look like a cartoon but it turns out Wendy’s a real person! Mary Lou Thomas, who at the time was a young freckled-faced girl with red hair, was the daughter of Dave Thomas.
She had trouble pronouncing her L’s and R’s, which was a problem considering her name contained so many of them, and so her family affectionately called her Wendy! Dave Thomas later established Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, with Wendy’s likeness used for the logo.
The 2013 redesign of the classic logo hides a little cryptic message. As many savvy consumers have pointed out, there’s a faint, sneakily hidden MOM tucked away in Wendy’s collar.
While Wendy’s has stated it’s merely a coincidence, others think it’s a subtle example of subliminal marketing essentially, sneaky advertising that’s meant to get in your head without you realizing. The goal would be to make you associate Wendy’s food with nice home cooking, or the warm feeling of love only a mother could provide.
You might have noticed that strands of wheatlike something always appear on either side of an award’s name. As with a few other items we’ve investigated, that tradition finds its roots in antiquity.
In both ancient Greece and Rome, laurel wreaths were placed atop the heads of those considered victorious. Whether you were a champion wrestler or a beloved poet, if you won a competition, you’d be adorned with a bushy wreath. Even Roman Emperors did it and they’re often seen donning laurel wreaths in sculptures.
Why was that the case? In Greek mythology, the God Apollo once fell in love with a nymph, which is kind of like a fairy. The nymph, who clearly only liked Apollo as a friend, turned herself into a tree to avoid him. The tree sprung laurels, which Apollo started wearing.
As Apollo was typically seen as a triumphant figure, the connotations stuck. That is also where the phrase to rest on one’s laurels comes from, to rely on past achievements rather than putting in an effort. Today, the laurels are an easy, eye-catching way of telling the audience that this is a winner.
Chic-Fil-A Hidden Chicken
If you live in the States, you’re probably familiar with Chick-Fil-A. Founded in 1946, the fast food chain is just about the only chicken business in the world able to compete with KFC, but its logo is comparatively busy and cryptic. Most people are able to spot the rooster proudly adorning the logo’s C.
But what you might not realize is that there are four more chickens nestled away in that loopy logo, if you look at them one by one. There’s the rooster in the C, there’s that little guy in the h and I, that one in the k, another in the f and I, and one final, more complete chicken whose beak is found in the capital A. Chick-Fil-A has never claimed that it was intentional.
We’ve got to be thankful for Toblerone. Without them, what would Dads around the world have received every single Father’s Day for the last 115 years? The triangular chocolate bares Switzerland’s iconic Matterhorn but, if you look closely, you will notice a hidden bear!
When you fill in the negative space on the mountain, you can clearly see a silhouette of a bear tucked away inside. That isn’t a random inclusion, however. It’s a cute reference to the town where the Toblerone company was founded, Bern, which is nicknamed the city of bears.
They even put the animal on their coat of arms! The name Toblerone is a portmanteau of the founder’s names, Emil and Theodore Tobler, and the Italian word for honey torrone. Coincidentally, Toblerone also features the letters B, E, R, and N in order.
Jesus Fish Symbol
If you’ve ever seen a bumper sticker in Midwest America, you’re probably aware that the simple fish is a symbol of Christianity. Next to the cross, it’s one of the most widely used signifiers of the faith. Why, though? A more common misconception is that the fish relates to the Miracle of the Multitude; the Biblical event where Jesus fed a crowd of thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and some fish.
However, that’s not actually where the faithful fish comes from. After all, that wouldn’t explain why the mysterious word IXΘYΣ sometimes appears inside it. It looks like it says Ixoye, but those are Ancient Greek letters that sound more like "ichthys".
To understand that, we need to head back, once again, to ancient Rome. The Romans weren’t big fans of Jesus or Christianity, they had their own Gods and ways of doing things. As such, early Christians were persecuted in Rome. The fish was a secret symbol used by Christians, often found in catacombs and alleys or temporarily in the dirt, signifying secret Christian meeting spots.
That is because the ancient Greek word for fish was an anagram for the word for Jesus at the time. The thought process was that the link was tenuous enough that the authorities wouldn’t associate them with one another. The Ixoye is more debated.
Some claim it’s a corrupted version of ichthys, which has occurred over the centuries. Others believe it’s a secret message, the letters standing for "Iesous Xristos Theou Yios Sotare". In Greek, that would mean Jesus, Christ, Son of, God, Saviour.
At Sign (@)
I think we can all agree that without the "AT" sign, all our email addresses would look super weird. What would we use instead? The hash sign? The percentage sign? While we couldn’t live without it today, have you ever wondered where the little swirly A came from? Believe it or not, that very modern symbol has a very old origin.
Before the advent of the printing press in 1436 and for a little while after, the easiest way to create a copy of a book was to do so by hand. Though it sounds agonizing, it was the task many Monks across Europe undertook throughout the early Medieval era. If abbeys were wealthy enough, some would have entire halls, called scriptoriums dedicated to the practice.
As you can imagine, copying out an entire book requires a lot of ink, so it was wise to use it sparingly. As such, Monks occasionally used an a with a little circle around it instead of having to write the word at.
In addition to saving a little ink, it was also a little easier on the wrist. The first use of the @ sign outside that setting can be traced back to a letter written by Florentine Merchant Francisco Lapi, all the way back in 1536!
I hope you were amazed the the meanings of common symbols and logos with hidden meanings! Thanks for reading.