5 Everyday Objects With Hidden Symbolism
Symbolism might mostly seem like a word overused by English teachers and people who don’t understand movies as much as they think they do, but it’s nevertheless both omnipresent and essential. Not just in an artistic way, either. Symbols are everywhere in creative and utilitarian form, helping communication across language and making sure that every street sign isn’t an unreadable paragraph that’s whizzing by at 60 miles per hour.
Weirdly, too, some symbols become so commonplace that while their intended meaning holds up, their origin can get lost to time. We all know that if we see a radiation warning symbol, it means “stay the fuck away unless you desire new vestigial limbs,” but not as many people know that it’s supposed to represent energy radiating from an atom. And that, even, is one that, given enough guesses, people might be able to land on. Some are either older, more figurative or just straight-up convoluted enough that you’d have a hard time tracing their origin without, well, articles like these.
Here are five bits of everyday symbology you might not know about…
The famous rotating pole of red, white and sometimes blue mostly brings to mind hair clippings and harmonized quartets. It’s not too hard to see why it’s stuck around: It’s fun, quickly recognizable, and the blue ones are vaguely patriotic, if you’re into that sort of thing. Plus, it’s brightly colored and moving, two things the human brain will never not find irresistible. We may have been to the moon, but that doesn’t mean we’re above that long-buried baby desire for shiny jangly things. With the exception of some recessive genes and the elderly, though, we don’t generally associate hair with the colors of red and white, so why those colors?
The fact is that it has absolutely nothing to do with haircuts, and more to do with something a little more morbid. It comes all the way from the middle ages, when barbers also performed basic surgery, most notably bloodletting. Back then, “too much blood” was a popular diagnosis for plenty of ailments, and the solution was to let some of it out. Doctors were too busy not washing their hands to bother, so barbers would perform bloodletting, and the red and white stripes symbolized the blood and bandages used. They also performed some other minor operations like tooth extractions, which makes those overly intense chairs a little more reasonable.
Eagle on the Dollar Bill
Speaking of patriotic, let’s look at the ever-powerful American dollar bill. The fact that these bits of cotton and linen are packed tip to tail with symbolism shouldn’t be new to anybody. The sheer amount of weird bullshit they’re covered with was enough to prop up a Nicolas Cage blockbuster, after all. I regret to inform you that the real symbolism is much less secretive and profitable, but it’s still interesting.
Most notably, the eagle seal on the back is repeatedly, almost obnoxiously obsessed with the number 13. Which is very spooky, if you are not aware of how many original colonies there were. Above the eagle, there are 13 stars. In its talons are both an olive branch and a clutch of arrows. The fact that there are 13 arrows is easy once you know to look, but a little more subtle is the fact that the olive branch has 13 distinct olives and 13 leaves each. As for the other 37 states, well, I guess they can fuck right off.
The Bluetooth Symbol
The tech world is filled with quickly recognizable, proprietary symbols, and it would take an entire other article to deconstruct each one. Not to mention, for good reason, most of them aren’t exactly the toughest nut for even an average brain to crack. Whoa, you’re telling me the WiFi symbol represents… a signal being broadcast? I’ll never look at a router the same way again!
One symbol that I would bet almost no one would be able to crack without help, though, is the symbol for Bluetooth. What does some little off-brand Space Invader have to do with my AirPods or printing things at the office?
Well, the bluetooth symbol is actually a rune, because Bluetooth is ancient magic that was found in a Viking tomb. Which is only half bullshit. It’s not magic, but it is a rune with Viking connections. It’s named for a Viking king, Harald Gormsson known as “Harald Bluetooth,” and trust me, I know just how fake that sounds. As Intel’s Jim Kardach explains, “Bluetooth was borrowed from the 10th century, second King of Denmark, King Harald Bluetooth, who was famous for uniting Scandinavia just as we intended to unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link.” The symbol itself is a combination of the runes hagal and bjarkan, or “HB” for Harald Bluetooth.
Way cooler than connecting a new headset via Gormsson.
If you’ve ever read an anatomy book or committed a horrible, grisly murder, you probably know that the human heart looks a whole lot less cute than the version we get on Valentine’s Day cards. It’s probably for the best, since a clump of knotted-up valves isn’t as “aww” inducing. With the amount it’s used in all sorts of shorthand, it’s notably easier to draw and also doesn’t look like something pulled from the margins of H.R. Giger’s math notebook.
So how did we end up with the cute little peach-shaped symbol? Well, there’s two prevailing theories: One is the classic “ancient people were not very good at knowing what stuff looked like or drawing,” and we basically got the kindergarten version of a heart, which stuck. But that’s much more boring than the other, which is that it’s based on silphium, a plant that ancient Greeks and Romans used as birth control. Those same associations with love, lust and reproduction (or lack thereof) they think might have established the connection, and the symbol does show up all over those civilizations.
The Middle Finger
Have you ever been walking around and found yourself in a confrontation with a fellow human? Maybe you’ve been in an argument with a parent, sibling, friend or partner. However you got there, you may have noticed them proffering a single, extended middle finger in your direction. If you were curious the message being conveyed, let me lift the veil: They were telling you to go fuck yourself.