Tokens of Our Time; The History of Some of Our Favourite Symbols

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!

ampersand-hiStuart MilesThe ampersand and pound sign

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.

So, Ancient Rome… not just nudity, baths and hedonism.

Boy, us Romans invented most of this puny language you call 'English'. We smite you with Latin - basiate culos meos!

Boy, us Romans invented most of this puny language you call ‘English’. We smite you with Latin – basiate culos meos!

powerThe Power Sign

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.

My power can never be turned to binary code 0, puny nerd

My power can never be turned to binary code 0, puny nerd

jscreationzsThe Dollar Sign

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. Cifrão symbol.svg

Dollar dollar bills ya'll

Dollar dollar bills ya’ll

asterisk-hiThe Asterisk

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.

Shut the f**k up... *giggles*

Shut the f**k up… *giggles*

bluetooth-hi

Bluetooth

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!

Cute like human Ewoks, Vikings were known for their deadly skill at battle

Cute like human Ewoks, Vikings were known for their deadly skill at battle

digitalart

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.

Make sure to take regular breaks from the screen to avoid hallucinations and Tron-esque out of body experiences

Make sure to take regular breaks from the screen to avoid hallucinations and Tron-esque out of body experiences

hash-sign-hi

The Hash

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)!

bored at work #worklife #notlistening # presentation #booooring #cliche #wearinashirt #rolex

bored at work #worklife #notlistening  #presentation #booooring #cliche #wearinashirt #rolex #lolz

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.

Going Obsolete – Help a Little

Going Obsolete – Learning Never Stops

Going Obsolete – Sweat, Tears and Digital Ink

Going Obsolete – My Little Avalon

Going Obsolete

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

Getting Lost to Find Yourself; Why You Should Travel Solo at Least Once In Your Life

The journey not the destination matters - T. S. Eliot

The journey not the destination matters – T. S. Eliot

I was in Shimla, Northern India, about five years ago. Sipping a warm Chai tea at a curb-side café and enjoying a glorious sunset over the mountains, I patted myself on the back for completing such an epic journey. It had taken me three weeks to get there from the UK, slowly meandering my way and stopping to see everything that presented itself. I was alone, as I was convinced that I only needed my own company after many trips before with friends and various organizations.

As the sun fully set, and the last dregs of my chai were cooling at the bottom of the cup, I realised that I had nothing to do. All the bustle and excitement of crazy Tuk-Tuk drivers, the double-crossing travel agents, the cramped train carriages – they were all done. Now, I merely had time to sit and relax, and ponder. Is this what I wanted? I didn’t want to admit it, but I was already missing the craziness of my journey. Arriving there, knowing the journey was over, it made me feel… sad? Sad at the end of a journey that was terribly fun. Sad at the end of an experience I hadn’t realised I could have.

After a few more drinks I got chatting to a man, let’s called him Jez, about what it means to travel. He was a well travelled man, a Ramblin’ Man, who’d seen more of the world than most, though he remembered little. He had recently crossed into India from Bangladesh, having spent several months moving around the rural parts of the country. After chatting for a while, I felt my frustrations bubble to the surface, and I admitted to him my feeling of unease at arriving. He just smiled at me and said:

“It’s empowering, isn’t it? Seeing who you really are, when nobody is around to remind you what you’re supposed to be. Why would anyone ever stop moving?”

From then on I realised one thing about myself; I was destined to wander on, possibly forever. Our history is riddled with idioms and tales that have shown us this is the truth. I wanted to be the rolling stone gathering no moss, the leaf on the stream.

I have been very privileged to travel widely in my relatively short life, and I have many places yet to see. The reasons? Why, they’re myriad!

So here’s your Itchy Quill breakdown of some justifications for why you should travel solo at least once in your life!

... it doesn't look that far away Dave

… it doesn’t look that far away Dave

1. The challenge

There is no greater feeling than accomplishing something (well, nothing safe for work anyway), and the opportunities to accomplish while travelling are endless. It could be anything from finding an address in the Souks of Marrakesh to ordering food in rural Mongolia. Whenever new challenges present themselves, you will amaze yourself at how you adapt and survive. It can be hard, frustrating, and sometimes lonely, but it’s not forever. The person you come back as will be far superior to the person who left. Things you never thought you could achieve become commonplace, you just need to show yourself you can do it!

"Make sure you get the view... no, no, get the view... I mean the view behind me... make sure I look dignified... yeah, the view though

“It’s so peaceful, you just forget about the world up here, with no technology or- quickly, this would be a great profile pic!

2. You will appreciate what you have

It’s easy to focus only on first world problems, and forget how good your life actually is. Returning from work, you open the freezer door and see that your house mate has finished the chilli pizza bites. You cry out “why lord, why have you punished me so?!” Equally, running for the bus you see the no. 888 pulling away and cry up to the heavens “my life is ruined!” as you accept you will be ten minutes late for work. Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating, or maybe I’m not. Either way, after spending a few weeks travelling around a backwater of Peru, you’ll quickly forget about deodorant and shaving, and picky food habits you might have had will soon vanish when you become aware the only thing the tribe you are staying with eat is goose guts and chicken feet.

Hey, water fight! Wait, is that tear gas?!

Hey, water fight! Wait, is that tear gas?! Ruuuuuun!

3. It gives you perspective

Every country teaches it’s children about history from that country’s viewpoint, and the media comments on the present using words sourced locally. This is why travelling is crucial in giving you a better understanding of the world by simply showing you that the way you see things isn’t necessarily how the rest of the world does. Cultural, traditional, economical and historical factors all play a part in shaping national identity, and consequently local worldview. Challenge your idea of the world!

top of the world

4. You can see a new culture from the inside

Speaking of within, as clandestine as it sounds, you get to be ‘behind enemy lines’ and discover from the inside what a country or culture is really like. As ridiculous as it sounds, you will often be surprised at how redundant stereotypes can be, and how wrong your perceptions of the world are. Peel back the surface, scratch underneath and dive right in. Look back on your culture from the outside while people show you theirs from within.

Probably should have mentioned the fear of heights before we left, right?

Probably should have mentioned the fear of heights before we left, right?

5. Your ability to communicate will change

While not speaking any other language than English will not always completely stop you, it can sometimes make things take longer than they would if you were a native speaker of the country you are in’s language. You will pick up local words, often colloquial language that you wouldn’t be taught in schools, plus your ability to read people and understand gesture and intent will sharpen. Your ability to express your feelings and desires will greatly improve too.

I'm so f#cking lost :)

I’m so f###ing lost

6. You’ll have tons of story-topping tales

Nobody likes a story-topper, and yet everyone does it. And while nobody likes people who return from travelling and boast about how amazing their time was, you can be safe in the knowledge that your stories are probably better! Regardless of that, travelling is becoming more and more of a great icebreaker as more and more young people look to faraway lands as the places to spend periods of their early twenties. Join the conversation!

Remember that time I ran away from home?

Remember that time I ran away from home?

7. It teaches you… a lot

The merits of education cannot be taken for granted, but let us not forget that any form of schooling is no replacement for experience. Truth be told, there is a strong argument that the closer you get to education, the further you are from wisdom. I won’t comment, but I will say that some of the skills you will learn from travelling can seldom be learned easier elsewhere. Some learn how to be humble, some learn patience. I learnt how to play Mah Jong and how to spot fake diamonds. The point is, there is a world of knowledge out there. The onus is on you to go and find it.

Who knew I loved sleeping so much?

Who knew I loved sleeping so much?

8. You’ll grow

Now, I’m not talking about the ‘my, haven’t you grown’ kind of growth only grandmothers seem to notice. I’m talking about the undeniable personal growth you will undergo from broadening your horizons. Your mentality will widen, your worldview will expand, and your appreciation of the other will advance. The strength of character and confidence you will gain from surviving on your own will become a backbone to future conquests, and you will have travelling to thank for it all!

Auld map of Africa (pre-1800)

Auld map of Africa (pre-1800)

9. You might find yourself

And this, I guess, is the clincher. It sounds so horribly tacky to say it with a straight face, but it is so true; sometimes you’ve got to get lost to find yourself. I spent my late teens and early twenties wandering the globe in search of god knows what, and I couldn’t find it on the beaches, in the fields or at the end of the camera lenses where I was looking. What I did discover was many things about myself I would probably never have learnt by shaking cocktails or typing in an office.

I am not saying life sucks, and I am certainly not looking down on those who haven’t travelled. We all have our own path, and we are all our own mysteries. I just know that for me, travelling made the difference in my life. And as it did, and continues to do, exactly that, I just want to share it. So what’s stopping you? Book a flight, pack a bag, and see where you end up. It will be the best decision you ever make.

This list is by no means definitive, and I am sure there are other advantages to think of. What do you think? As always, comments are welcome. What would you add/subtract?

Special thanks to PhoTrablogger for reminding me why I love (and dearly miss) India.

taj silhouette

Not all those who wander are lost – J. R. R. Tolkien

Special thanks to africa, graur razvan ionut, khunaspix, taoty, naypong, num_skyman and varaorn @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015