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Most of what you say to the world is done via symbols. Just the presence of a certain ring on a certain finger tells the world something important about you (and how expensive that ring is says something else on top of that). A blue Mohawk says even more. But what we've always found fascinating here is that we usually have no idea where the symbols came from -- society just tells you, "This stands for that, and we're going to treat you accordingly."

Which makes it even more ridiculous when you find that some of the most ubiquitous symbols in the world were originally created to represent the exact opposite of what they mean today ...

5
Uncle Sam Was An Anti-Government Caricature

Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Uncle Sam, with his red, white, and blue suit, stern gaze, and Colonel Sanders facial hair, is the ultimate symbol of American patriotism, and is Captain America's dad, probably. Uncle Sam's most iconic appearance was on recruitment posters, personally beckoning freedom-loving patriots to join the army in World War I and its big-budget sequel.

James Montgomery Flagg
The poster idea was stolen from the British, like the political cartoons on Veep and House Of Cards

But Originally:

Uncle Sam dates back much earlier than his rallying efforts in the Great War. In fact, his earliest known appearance was during the War of 1812. And while he was still an illustrated personification of the American government, it was far from a flattering portrayal -- Uncle Sam was kind of a doofy asshole.

Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Uncle: Creepiest relative designation since 1812

Historians disagree on how he got his name -- either he was originally the likeness of a real-life American businessman named Sam Wilson, or it was derived from a mocking nickname given to the United States Light Dragoons (USLD), a cavalry unit whose initials were derisively said to actually stand for "Uncle Sam's Lazy Dogs." In any case, when Uncle Sam came into common use, it was in caricatures drawn for anti-government propaganda magazines, who basically wanted a shorthand way to represent the entire government as one cranky old shithead in a flag costume.

Grinchuckle
Here, he gets his ass kicked by Canada. Canada.

The turning point for Uncle Sam's reputation didn't come about until the 1870s, when due to lucky coincidence, people noticed that he looked an awful lot like Abraham Lincoln, especially when Lincoln grew out his goatee (during his experimental phase). After that, artists started to go with it and straight-up draw the character as Abe in a gaudy suit.

Of course, Lincoln came to be known as one of the country's most beloved leaders, so the snide caricature who came to mockingly resemble him began to ride on the coattails of Lincoln's own reputation, until the government adopted him as a source of pride, because the government is frequently tone-deaf that way. They made Uncle Sam the spokesman for the famous "I Want You" campaign, and the rest is history.

Kena Betancur/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Now, he's a Macy's balloon, and we ignore his dark past. Just like Garfield.

Had Uncle Sam inadvertently borne a closer resemblance to James Buchanan or Jefferson Davis than Abraham Lincoln, America would've wound up with an entirely different cartoon mascot. Probably.

4
Devil Horns Were A Sign Of Good Luck

Dustin Gaffke/Flickr

The "devil horns" gesture, an extended forefinger and pinky thrust defiantly into the air as if you are trying to smooth out a ghost's eyebrows, is the universal symbol for heavy metal. Back when metal was young and the media insisted to older generations that the genre was a recruitment tool for the armies of darkness, metal musicians wholeheartedly embraced the reputation and did everything they could to align themselves with that image, realizing that they could sell a hell of a lot of records (pun unflinchingly intended) in the process.

berr.e/Flickr
"Hands up, and give us your money!"

But Originally:

The devil horns gesture was first associated with metal music by Ronnie James Dio, who took over as the vocalist of Black Sabbath after Ozzy Osbourne astral projected his consciousness to one of Saturn's moons and left behind a stuttering husk of drug flesh. Dio began incorporating the horns into the band's performances, and it quickly stuck. However, Dio wasn't inviting the audience to join him in a salute to the Prince of Darkness -- if anything, he was basically wishing them good luck.

Paul Kane/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
"This is much easier than Ozzy's biting the foot off a live rabbit suggestion."

According to Dio, he used the gesture because it is an old Italian gesture that he learned from his grandmother, who taught it to him as a way of warding off "the evil eye," which basically refers to any look you mistrust that can cause bad luck. Throwing out the index finger and pinkie isn't a gesture of allegiance to Satan, but rather the complete opposite -- sort of a giant "kiss my grits" to the malevolent forces of the universe.

via mtv.co.hu
Actually, an old Sicilian lady saying "Fuck you, Satan" is pretty damn metal.

Apparently, the fact that it looks like a totally rocking pair of horns is just a happy accident, and/or a ruse to confuse any warlocks in the immediate vicinity.

Sabbath fans who loved the shit out of metal music but were unfamiliar with the history of obscure Mediterranean superstition quickly adopted the hand sign, assuming they were wishing Satanic torture on the devotees of lesser music genres. And while we're on the subject ...

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3
The "Shaka" Sign Was An Insult To A Specific Disabled Person

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Originating from Hawaiian surf culture, the "shaka" is a hand gesture with an assortment of possible meanings from "cowabunga" to "hang loose" to "I only saw Spider-Man one time and this is my spotty recollection of the hand signal he uses to summon his web-slinging abilities." In any case, it's more or less the Hawaiian equivalent of the peace sign or the thumbs up, which we assume was settled on at least partially due to the fact that there are precious few finger combinations that don't already mean something.

IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Getty Images
The margin of error between shaka and shocker is a thin one.

But Originally:

The true origin of the shaka symbol is difficult to pin down, but local legend points to it as having begun as a way to mock one specific dude who had just lost a bunch of fingers. According to the majority of Hawaiians who have an opinion on the matter, the object of the scorn was a guy named Hamana Kalili, who worked in a sugar mill until an industrial accident lopped off three of his fingers on one hand, leaving him with only the thumb and pinkie, basically the two least useful considering he could no longer point, wear a wedding ring, or play a triumphant guitar solo.

The Keepapitchinin
But he could still hold a giant spear, because he was awesome.

The accident forced a career change, and Kalili became a train security guard. Ostensibly the purpose of this job is to guard trains, but what it ultimately boils down to is preventing asshole kids from jumping on train carriages like mischievous hobos. This is where his tragic disability entered into the local lexicon -- kids who wanted to defy The Man and ride the trains kept watch for the crusty old train guard and flashed the hand sign to signal that the coast was clear. In other words, the local symbol for tubular good will started off as a shorthand (get it?) way to make fun of a disabled person for doing his job properly and trying to keep dumbass teenagers from being crushed beneath thousands of pounds of uncaring boxcars.

Hawaiian Railway Society
Let's assume dozens of those teens lost fingers to the train.

The sign found new life as a positive gesture when the former mayor of Honolulu, Frank Fasi, interpreted it as some hip local custom and used it in his political campaign. So essentially, Fasi got elected on a platform of letting all of Honolulu know that it was safe to go jump on a train.

2
The "All Seeing Eye" On The Dollar Bill Was Referring To The New World Order That Already Happened

paulprescott72/iStock/Getty Images

You might have wondered why the hell every dollar bill is marked with that weird stone pyramid symbol with a single eye peering from the top of it like the goddamned eye of Sauron. Conspiracy theorists are happy to explain to you that the symbol, known as the "All-Seeing Eye," is the logo of the Freemasons, and that the Latin phrase beneath it translates to "New World Order." In other words, the smallest denomination of U.S. paper currency is warning us that change is coming, which apparently means that we'll all soon be taking orders from alien lizards.

Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images
They lack the compassion and humor of earthling lizards.

But Originally:

First of all, the phrase "novus ordo seclorum" doesn't actually translate to "new world order." In reality, the meaning is something closer to "a new order of the ages." And while you might think the difference is negligible, because the end result still sounds like they're warning us about an impending Masonic overthrow of the free world, the "new order" the symbol is referring to is the one that was signed into law in 1776, when America told the King of England to go polish his own scepter (you know -- the date that's literally inscribed on the base of the pyramid). So conspiracy theorists are late to the party by nearly two and a half centuries.

Department of State
It's really more of a middle-aged world order at this point.

As for the Masonic connection, historians interpret that as being more or less coincidental. It's true that the Freemasons have a symbol that resembles the All-Seeing Eye, which is said to represent God or some kind of "architect of the universe" (Masons are big on construction metaphors). However, the point of the pyramid on the dollar bill is to symbolize "strength and duration." So, the meaning of "a new order of the ages" is much less "things are going to change around here" and something closer to "we're keeping America exactly the same for as long as we possibly can."

Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"America forever! And the dollar, forever! To hell with the U.N., and fuck Bitcoin!"

And despite the popularly held myth that all of the founding fathers were Freemasons, the truth is that the only Mason who had any input whatsoever into the design of the pyramid seal was Ben Franklin, and his contribution to the committee was flatly rejected on the grounds of being terrible and stupid. So the one time that the dastardly Masons had an opportunity to sneak a code into American currency was thwarted by Franklin's elementary school-level art skills.

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1
The "Skinhead" Look Originally Celebrated Black Culture

Sion Touhig/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At some point, being bald while wearing combat boots became shorthand for being a literal Nazi, even if the dude has his Swastika tattoo hidden safely under his shirt.

New Line Cinema
Pro tip: The incline barbell press gives your pec swastika that extra bulge.

It makes sense -- it's an intimidating look intended to signal that the wearer is ready for combat (or, you know, a bout of prolonged unemployment).

But Originally:

Back in the 1960s, a self-described skinhead's record collection would've consisted primarily of Bob Marley albums. Originally, "skinhead" was a fashion style that arose out of "mod culture," a British fad that was typified by short-cropped hair, military boots, T-shirts, and an affection for R&B, soul, and Jamaican ska music. In other words, the kind of music that would skull-detonate Edward Norton's character in American History X like a racist pinata.

Gavin Watson
"Look, it was either this or white guy dreads. ... Yeah, that's what we thought."

Back in those days, black skinheads -- a concept you might assume was a provocative contradiction invented by Kanye West and/or a sketch on Chappelle's Show -- were commonplace, being that the skinhead culture was originally apolitical and primarily concerned with an appreciation for dark-skinned musicians. But times soon became tough for British youth, and high unemployment rates led to xenophobia, which inevitably became racism. Black culture diverged on its own path, while the white skinheads shaved their heads even closer, wore even more militaristic garb, and began tattooing swastikas on their disenfranchised biceps.

Eventually, a shaved head on a white dude became a political statement that spread to the United States, and skinhead culture cemented itself as the second time in history that Nazis have ruined an entire hairstyle for everyone (the first being when Hitler ruthlessly discredited Charlie Chaplin's mustache for all time).

For more on symbolism, check out 6 Famous Symbols That Don't Mean What You Think and 5 Famous Symbols that Were Created to Be Horrible Insults .

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