Symbol, short version

Symbol, short version – A symbol is a sign or group of signs with an agreed upon allegorical meaning. At it’s most basic, a symbol is an image or other element in a story that represents more than itself.

For example, “United States of America” literally means “a late capitalist North American democracy/empire inhabited by ~400 million people of widely various descent; cap. Washington D.C.; largest city New York; predominant religion Protestant Christianity including various native evangelical branches, notably Mormonism; pres. Obama; cuisine hamburgers and fries,” and so forth.

However, as a symbol, the USA has stood for hope and freedom (in East Berlin and Russia in the 70s), for terror and oppression (in parts of Vietnam in the 70s, in parts of Iraq in the early 2000s), and for excess and hyperconsumption (in France today).

A symbol is not a sign. A symbol is non-literal and relies upon convention (agreement lasting among a particular group of people for a particular amount of time). Old symbols include: Images of fire = God (Zoroastrian Persia, c. before 600 BCE to CE 600); the words “yellow” or “pale” = disease, death (Europe, c. at least as early as late Roman times to now).

Symbols can be specific to a text: How is the radio used symbolically in The Birds? We tend to all agree on technology as a symbol of human achievement/civilization, so the radio’s silence is a symbol of the unraveling of civilization, of apocalypse. Symbol is (yet another) class of metaphor: It is metaphor broadened outward.

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