The Sign Debate: Symbol or Icon?

The Sign Debate: Symbol or Icon?

The field of semiotics differentiates between various types of signs. However, the lines

become somewhat blurred in trying to distinguish between a symbol and an icon, as it is not so clear cut. Based on class readings and icons presentations, I argue that the differentiating factor between a symbol and an icon is time. A symbol is an arbitrary sign for something that is based on previously established social convention and culture. An icon is something that transcends culture, is universally recognized, and most importantly, transcends time. Whereas a symbol tells us something about the present, an icon provides meaning not only about the time in which the icon comes from, but it is reappropriated to give off new meaning in the present.

Semiotics scholars have made this argument as well. Marco Solaroli, in his work Iconicity: A Category for Social and Cultural Theory, ​writes, “Icons are claimed to address a deep cultural-structural tension that becomes publicly visible and concretely situated in a specific visual-material form but, at the same time, is still ‘felt’ much more widely in the social world… In this process, icons can powerfully enter the public cultural sphere with their own performative traction.” In other words, icons are not just seen and understood as signs are; they give off additional meaning beyond just their intended meaning, and that meaning changes over time depending on social norms and the changing culture.


Take, for example, the “@” sign. While the origins of the symbol are not exactly clear, it was used regularly to signify commerce rates — as in “12 apples @ $5.” Importantly, typewriters did not include the @ symbol when they were first created in the mid-1800s. However, in 1971, computer scientist Ray Tomlinson wanted to connect people through computers. Tomlinson needed a symbol that the computer program could distinguish, differentiating between a person’s username and the computer name that the person was using. Arbitrarily, Tomlinson picked the @ symbol. “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much,” he told Smithsonian. “And there weren’t a lot of options—an exclamation point or a comma. I could have used an equal sign, but that wouldn’t have made much sense,” Tomlinson said (footnote 1). With this symbol, Tomlinson created the first email exchange. Based on its history, very clearly, the “@” sign is a symbol. It is an arbitrary sign that has a specific meaning for a very particular purpose — which has not changed.

Compare the “@” sign with the swastika, which I argue is a symbol that turned into an infamous icon.

The word “swastika”​ comes from Sanskrit. In Sanskrit the word “swastika” means “good fortune” or “well-being.” It was first used in Eurasia around 7,000 years ago. Some accounts describe the symbol as representing the movement of the sun through the sky. Even today, the swastika it is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Odinism and can be found on temples and houses in India or Indonesia. However, the swastika today has a radically different meaning. Not only is it universally recognized, but it was reappropriated by a different culture. The Nazi Party reappropriated the Swastika in the 1930s, and today it almost exclusively connotes Hitler and the Holocaust. Before the Nazis used the swastika for their political party, it was an arbitrary sign that was clearly a symbol. But because it transcends time and culture, it has become notorious. A symbol with widespread notoriety is an icon — it is well known for a negative quality rather than a positive one. But nonetheless, it is a symbol turned icon.


The same phenomenon is true with the iconic Eiffel Tower. When it was first created, it was barely a symbol. It had no significance to the people of Paris. As Vanessa Schwartz put it in her urban icons project essay, “The Tower inevitably had its initial critics, including a cranky group of well-respected mainstream French artists, writers and intellectuals who complained in 1887 that it would be a monstrous symbol of the craven machine age that would destroy both the values and image of the world’s most important city.” Schwartz also points out that the Eiffel Tower has multiple meanings. This is in part what renders it an icon and not a symbol. “The Tower stands for Paris but also relies on a system of signification in which Paris stands for France. It validates the notion that whatever happens in the reordering of world power, France will ‘always have Paris’. Or, if they do not have it, standing in front of the Tower becomes the evidence of that condition.” (Schwartz, Urban Icons Project).

The differences between a symbol and an icon become even more blurred and less significant when photography, particularly photographs of celebrities, become commonplace. A case study I’d like to turn to is the “V” sign, made by holding one’s index and middle fingers in the air, originally standing for “victory.” There is no reliable historical documentation to verify the origins of the “V” sign. Some sources explain that it ​derives from a gesture made by longbowmen fighting in the English archers at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years’ War. The “V” sign also played an important role in Winston Churchill’s and the Allie’s World War II campaign in defeating Nazi Germany. It resurfaces as a memorable hand gesture when President Richard Nixon made it his signature pose. In the 1960s, the “V” sign was changed from “victory” to “peace,” during the hippie movement and the pursuit of ending the Vietnam War. ​On paper, the “V” sign is a symbol; it is an arbitrary sign that means something that now has loose logical connection to its form. But the real power and recognizability of the symbol comes from celebrity icons who have held up the sign.


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Footnotes (2,3,4)

Compare Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill, and John Lennon all holding up the same sign. Each of these photographs has an entirely different meaning despite the fact that each person is holding the same sign. Each of these photos are of iconic people, but each icon uses the arbitrary symbol differently, showing how photography adds another twist to the attempt to separate an icon from a symbol. Roland Barthes, in his work ​Rhetoric of the Image​, argues that photos are not a trace of life but rather a form of art, that they create new meaning. That’s exactly the case here. It does not matter that there are differences between the symbol and the icon because the photographs combines them and makes it into a new package to give off new meaning. The first image reminds viewers of the struggles of WWII, a peace-seeking bloodshed as well as the funny nature of the great Winston Churchill. The second, because of the icon holding up the sign, gives off a feeling of corruption and anti government attitudes. And the third is the opposite of war; it reminds viewers of the protests against the Vietnam War and the advocacy to “give peace a chance.”


Based on these different interpretations of the sign, it can be argued that the “V” sign/peace sign is iconic. Martin Kemp makes this exact argument in his work ​Christ To Coke: How Image Becomes Icon​: “An iconic image is one that has achieved wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognizability and has come to carry a rich series of varied associations for very large numbers of people across time and cultures…” Note the title of Kemp’s work “How Image Becomes Icon.” Kemp must believe that, just like the swastika turned Nazi sign, a symbol can indeed become iconic.

Life is full of mundane symbols everywhere, but icons are harder to come across. Signs are so ingrained into everyday life that they have no special purpose or meaning, whereas it is more of a privilege and special occasion to see an icon as it gives off more meaning and tells us not just about the time in which the icon was made, but also something about how times have changed since then; it represents something more than its form. While this may be true, it is also important to recognize that there are some blurred lines in differentiating between symbols and icons, as is particularly evident in examining photography’s role in making meaning from a combination of icons and symbols.



1 Allman, William F. “The Accidental History of the @ Symbol.” ​,​ Smithsonian Institution, 1 Sept. 2012,

2 The Telegraph.

3 Famous Pictures.

4 Pinterest.

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