In 2012, I spent a summer in Brighton, UK, teaching English in a small scale language school with bags of charm but ageing resources. My class was filled with about ten 16 year olds, real cool kids away from home for a summer of language learning, beach-side romance and a few adventures to carry back to their respective homelands.
One afternoon we went to the attic room to use the listening suite. There was a vast collection of audio cassette and VCR tapes, but not a CD nor DVD to be seen.
Their desks were all fitted with embedded tape players, with individual headphone sets and audio control buttons. They had free roam of the wonderfully categorized shelves of materials, and as this lesson required no planning, I was expecting to be able to fill the time with reading while I casually supervised their progress. I was wrong.
Within a few minutes, hands were being raised and I was being told about the same problem.
“Sir, my player’s broken”.
I’d walk over, check the tape, and see that whoever had used it previously had failed to rewind it. I’d put the tape in and ask the students to rewind. They would hit the ‘skip back’ button. Nothing would happen, so they’d assume it was still broken.
It dawned on me; these teenagers had never used tape players in their life! In fact, their understanding of that technology was so absent, they believed it was possible to actually skip tracks in a way similar to CDs!
Those teenagers were digital natives. To them, the symbols on a laptop, TV, iPhone were all invented purely for those devices. I felt pity for them, but then realised for myself how I had done much the same thing when I was a child. Did I truly know the history of the symbols I saw every day? Had my grandmother laughed when I didn’t recognise the ‘L’ in the £ sign? Did my Science teacher chuckle at the fact I didn’t recognise Norse History on my telephone keypad?
I had to know more, so here is the Itchy Quill History lesson on some famous symbols and their origins!
What do London, the & symbol and the £ sign have in common? Yes, they are all very popular in England, but more importantly, they were all invented by Romans. Ok, ok, So you can’t invent a city, but London, or rather Londinium, was a very successful experiment in replicating traditional Roman methods of living, but overseas. All three were also opportunities for ancient Romans to demonstrate their remarkable skill in design, ingenuity and style.
See, the ampersand is essentially a highly stylized version of the Latin word for and, Et, invented by a fellow named Marcus Tullius Tiro. He didn’t give it the catchy name however, you can blame the true lovers of Latin – Victorian school children – for that. In the time of Queen Victoria, the symbol was essentially treated as the 27th letter of the alphabet. Children would chant the alphabet through rote learning with the ending being “and per se and”. This literally translates as ‘and, in itself, and’. Children being children, they couldn’t wait to finish the chant and be the first one to get to the jelly and custard at break time, and so the words ended up blending together to make ampersand.
As for the £ sign, that little guy is essentially just a fancy pants ‘L’. Those of us born in modern times will find it harder to recognise, as practising this style, known as roundhand, becomes less and less promoted in schools. Why L? Well, it’s down to those Romans again. They had a unit of weight called the ‘libre’, and the £ sign is merely an abbreviation (which is the reason for the one or sometimes two dashes across the middle of the £). Interestingly, the libre is also the namesake of the lb measurement of weight too.
We’ve all stared at it knowingly for years, touched it on countless instruments, but never truly known what it means. In truth it’s a symbol from when coding was in its formative years. As far back as WW2, this symbol was used to demonstrate in binary the presence or absence of power; 1 (the line) means on, 0 means off.
However, sometimes there can be a line within an unbroken 0 which means a single switch can move an instrument from on to off, and vice versa. There can also be a 0 broken by a line which represents that something can be turned off, but not disconnected from the power source completely.
The dollar bill, a beacon of the American Dream, is arguably one of the best recognised currencies in the world. In parts of SE Asia and South America, dollar bills can actually be used as a de facto currency, meaning black markets exist for travellers who never need to change into the local money from USD, as the value of an American Dollar is so robust. So, where does this wonderful bastion of autonomy come from?
There are various theories to choose from, but the most widely accepted seems to be that it is an offspring of the Spanish Peso. In the 1700s, the Peso – “peso de ocho reales” or ‘pieces of eight’ – was the common currency of the Americas. PS was the abbreviation, and it is thought that over time the S and P would be placed on top of each other, forming an early ancestor of the $. This seems to fit the time line, as it was evident on the first paper bills printed by the US in 1875.
Those feeling curious are free to check Ayn Rand’s alternative idea, that the $ sign is a combination of the initials of U and S from USA, with the bottom of the U being cut off.
He’s not just a menace to the Gauls; the asterisk has a history that goes back as far as the Middle Ages. Original employed with its best friend the dagger (†) as two of the first proof-reading marks, largely from need for the scholars tasked with editing Homer’s poetry epics. Ask an Athenian though, and they may tell you it comes from the Greek word asteri, meaning star.
In literary terms, it fell out of favour largely until the twentieth century, utilised to great effect solo to demonstrate the insertion of a footnote, or as a trio to break text into sections.
In modern times, it can literally mean anything. A pro athlete never wants one of these next to their name as it can signify a win under controversial or conditional circumstances, or in some biographies it can mean the year of birth (*1969). On the number key of your keyboard it could be a replacement for × (multiply), a mask for expletives in t*ts and s**t, and it can even be used to denote a *snigger* or a *gasp* on twitter. Whatever it’s use, the asterisk is a real chameleon of the symbol jungle, and it deserves a place in our hearts.
What do wireless devices syncing together and medieval Scandinavia have in common? No, it’s not a thirst for pillaging and decimation; it’s actually quite the opposite.
Harald Bluetooth was the Viking king of Denmark from 958 to 970, and famous lover of Blueberry’s (hence the blue teeth). He is best remembered for uniting parts of Norway and Denmark into one country, and converting them to Christianity. See Harald was a man famous for bringing people together.
In the early 90s, when various different technology sectors were developing their own systems, it was assumed by some designers that this difference would vastly impede wireless compatibility across them. Jim Kardach was one such designer. Inspired by Harald, who he viewed as a perfect symbol for bringing together rival parties, he was able to help mediate between the various interested bodies and from this the Bluetooth Special Interest Group was born.
Think it stops there? It’s Harald’s name in ancient rune form that actually makes up the official Bluetooth logo!
The at sign
Few can imagine a world without it now, as it stands as the posterboy of modern communication; the twitter handle’s opening character, the link between username and domain on any email address. Alas, there was a time when this inescapable symbol was just a forgotten key stuck in obscurity on old typewriters.
The true origins are somewhat of a mystery, though many can agree that it came to prominent use as a symbol for ‘at the rate of’ in commerce, as in ’20 chickens at £1″ (its crucial meaning being demonstrated by the fact the total there would be £20).
It wasn’t until 1971 and the advent of the forerunner to email, that ‘The snail” (as the Italians called it) came into a new age of importance. Ray Tomlinson, a computer scientist at BNN (the company tasked by the American government with creating Arpanet – the precursor to the internet) sent a message to himself from one computer to another, and saved the @ sign from disappearing into symbolic and literal obscurity.
And here we are – the symbol of our time. Has any symbol found itself more crucial to our technological strides, not just once but twice in modern history? Initially one of only two symbols chosen for dial tone phones to make the new keypads more symmetrical, it later entered the public psyche via Twitter in 2007 to demonstrate a trend or topic. As my friend recently noted, “it’s the only thing that’s always trending”.
Most of us know it now as the hash sign, but its actual name is The Octothorpe, giving it the air of a superhero. Those etymologists among us will recognise that octo means eight. A quick count and you can see we are looking at only six points, but that’s not the only mystery. See, some claim that the thorpe part means ‘farm’ in Old Norse, and that # would indicate a village on old maps. To this day, the symbol can mean a lumber yard on Swedish maps. It can also be used in proof-reading to signify a space should be inserted, and it can even mean a checkmate in chess!
If that wasn’t enough, a similar incarnation would be adopted by the Romans (them again) as another symbol for pound (bringing the total to, yes, three different symbols for pound)!
What symbols do you think are missing from this list? Do you feel aggravated that I didn’t include the Neptune inspired USB logo? Perhaps you cannot contain your rage at the non-inclusion of the question mark? There are many websites out there with information on the history of symbols, Gizmodo being one of my favourites.
The point here was never to give a definitive answer to all and every, but to instead give you the clip notes of some of the symbols we see everyday. The ingenuity, intelligence and history that is behind each of these could fascinate. I’d like to know what you think.
Special thanks to AKARAKINGDOMS, digitalart, Iamnee, iprostocks, jscreationzs, Pixomar, Simon Howden, stockimages, Stuart Miles, vectorolie, imagerymajestic and patrisyu @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.
© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015