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Can we change the meaning of a well established symbol and use the newly defined symbol in our writing? If so how do we go about doing so?

It am not talking about using a symbol in the context of its antithesis. That still relies on the original meaning. In such cases playing symbols in juxtaposition to their opposite meaning and using them in reverse context can be powerful and evocative.

I'm talking about changing the meaning entirely. Can it be done? I assume if it can that it will require a lot of establishing. My thought is to tear away the original meaning by establishing in some way it does not mean that, then slowly build up the new meaning. (Besides perhaps publishing a small companion essay explaining it.)

  • Do you want to repudiate the current meaning and replace it with a new one? That sounds much more difficult than adding a new meaning – Rasdashan Mar 30 '19 at 5:19
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    @Rasdashan I agree. I doubt it is even possible. But if you just add new meaning the old one is still there. That also complicates things. – AGirlHasNoName Mar 30 '19 at 13:56
  • What symbol? Like a swastika? – wetcircuit Apr 1 '19 at 11:57
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Reinterpretations of symbols are a common occurence:

  1. The letter x given the meaning "hazard":

    enter image description here

  2. The hazard symbol given the meaning "intoxication" or "death":

    enter image description here

  3. The christian cross given the meaning "Switzerland":

    enter image description here

  4. The Swiss cross given the meaning "medical help":

    enter image description here

  5. The copyright symbol given the meaning "funny tv station":

    enter image description here

  6. A form of the christian cross given the meaning "white supremacy":

    enter image description here

  7. The dollar symbol given the meaning "variable":

    $foo = "bar";

  8. The German penny symbol (the letter d, for "denarius", in Kurrent script) given the meaning "delete":

    enter image description here

and so on ...

Often the new meaning is related to the old one, as in most of these visual examples, but that is not always the case: tv station Comedy Central have nothing specific to do with copyright (or breaking it, as the reverse open circle might suggest) and the dollar sign in programming has no relation to currency.


How do you establish a new meaning for a well-known symbol?

By using it in that meaning.

Let us suppose that in your text you want to establish the question mark as a symbol for a god. To do that, you could introduce the symbol and this meaning in a scene, where a character regards the symbol and thinks of or learns its meaning:

Over the altar was what looked like a reversed letter S, with a circle below it.
"What does that serpentine line over the dot mean?", John asked.
"It's a symbol for the new god", Ann explained.

After this introduction you keep using the symbol in this meaning, while you avoid mentioning the old meaning. For example, do not write that "John was hunted by a group of men with question marks on their shoulders". Either give the symbol a name (e.g. "the symbol of [name of god]") or always describe it ("... with the god's wavy line and dot on their shoulders.").

This practice works well, as has been shown in the Third Wave experiment, where a cupped hand – originally a sign for "holding [water]" – became a symbol for being a member of a (fascist) community.

But symbols work best when their new meaning is related to the old one. If it isn't, those of your readers who recognize the original symbol, will wonder what the relation is and what you intended with your use of that symbol.

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    But isn't the original meaning there under the surface. This can be used to good effect with the combination of hazard and intoxication for instance. But I want a clean slate. – AGirlHasNoName Mar 30 '19 at 23:25
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    @bruglesco You cannot make your readers forget the original meaning of a symbol. What you can do is give it a new meaning unrelated to the old one. How the old and new meaning interact is beyond your control. But the dollar symbol in programming doesn't make most programmers think of money when they use it in the context of programming. That symbol has acquired a second meaning that is equal to the first. Because the contexts are unrelated. – user37583 Mar 31 '19 at 7:13
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Can you completely replace the meaning in the reader's mind? Probably not - it's pretty similar to trying to change the definition of a word. What might be easier is the change the symbol's meaning for your PoV characters. Try showing the change from their perspectives.

Add some event that makes the question their initial beliefs, and eventually discard those beliefs. Then slowly build up the new meaning in their mind. Show why that symbol has a new meaning.

To use Rasdashan's shield example: Suppose the shield is adopted as the symbol of a newly-formed political party (to show that they're pledging to protect the country from some threat). This political party manages to get a psychopathic dictator elected. The shield, once a symbol of protection, is now a symbol of oppression in your world. Show your characters reacting to the change - have your MC look at someone carrying a shield and think "There's someone who might break down my door at 4 A.M."

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To both create the new meaning and repudiate the old might be nearly impossible.

We are a symbolic creature at heart, always seeking pattern and meaning and seeing things that might never have been intended.

Meanings abide. Laurels are still a symbol of victory and success though millennia have passed since they were awarded in the Olympic Games. There are probably many who know the symbolism without understanding its genesis. Would it be possible to make the laurel mean something else to someone - perhaps, but removing the meaning already assigned would be unwise as it would break immersion and be seen as an attack on an established symbol.

You could take the simple shield, a symbol of protection, and try to make it mean something else. The reader will still know what that symbol usually means and hold onto that. Removing that meaning would take more effort than it is worth and likely fail.

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If it is a well known symbol, I sincerely doubt it; unless you are writing a farce or comedy.

The issue is I don't think the reader can divorce themselves from the symbol triggering the well-known meaning. As an example, for an American, "FBI" means one thing, it is a symbol. No matter what you do in your book or movie, "FBI" is going to trigger the well-known meaning, period. They may also remember you want it to mean something different, but that will be a secondary thought. This is a physical, biological phenomenon: Neurons are and neural pathways are physical things and cannot be un-grown or put aside for the purpose of your story; they are going to fire and trigger their mental models of the real "FBI" whether you like it or not.

The same goes for visual symbols. The swastika used to mean other things, some of them spiritual, but once it became appropriated as the symbol of Fascist Germany under Hitler; forget it. You will never supplant that meaning or prevent that meaning from being triggered; the swastika will likely represent Hitler's Germany for many centuries. The same goes for the Christian Cross, the Hammer and Sickle for Communism, etc.

Now, this is a biological phenomenon you can exploit in a farce or comedy movie. Say our human crew lands on an alien planet (or in the future) where raising the middle finger solo is a gesture to be taken as a compliment on your style. If not overdone, a writer could wring some laughs out of that, but that is because the audience is programmed to realize the dichotomy of the humans seeing one thing and the aliens meaning another, and perhaps vice versa; the aliens taking as a compliment what was intended as an angry insult. And then the humans get used to it, and come home and use it as a compliment which gets taken as an insult.

The only reason I can think one might do this is to force this dichotomy thinking in the reader, as we might want to do in comedy. Other than that, I'd use some imagination and come up with a unique signal. Or appropriate one that is not very well known at all; for example there is a ton of art and religion iconography that only a very tiny percentage of people would know is being used incorrectly or doesn't mean what you claim it means. If your alternative meaning isn't going to cause any cognitive dissonance in 98% of the audience, no big deal.

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What are you trying to accomplish here?

If a symbol is well known, getting that meaning out of reader's heads is very hard. Like if you decided that in your story the dollar sign, $, will be a symbol for, I don't know, a new political party, I think readers would be asking, So what does this party have to do with money? Do you mean that this party is all about economic policy? That they are corrupt and take bribes? Or what?

If your goal is simply that you need a symbol in your story for some idea or movement or group, why not just make up a new symbol? What is gained by trying to recycle an existing symbol?

The only reasons I can think of to re-using an existing symbol are:

(a) The characters in your story want to bring connotations of the existing idea into their new idea. The symbol represents something that is highly respected and they want to appropriate that respect. Like, many people see the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom. So you use the Statue of Liberty as a symbol for their movement or organization so that people will associate them with freedom. (This could be legitimate, if they really are all about freedom, or it could be a total sham.)

(b) The characters are trying to tear down some existing idea, maybe are trying to replace it with their own. Like, they hate Christianity and want to replace it with their own religion, so they use a cross as their symbol and try to convince people to associate the cross with their new religion rather than the existing religion.

I'm not saying those are the only possible reasons, just the only ones that occur to me.

It may be necessary to distinguish why you as the author want to re-use a symbol, and why the characters in your story want to do this.

Either way, getting people to forget the meaning of a well-known symbol is hard. user10915156 mentioned how some programming languages use the $ to mean "variable". That's true. But I've been a programmer for 40 years (wow I'm getting old ...), and I still find that distracting. To some extent you can get people to separate "domains" in their minds, to see something as having one meaning in this domain and a different meaning in another domain. Like I recall once noticing with amusement that when I was talking about electronics, "CRT" meant "cathode ray tube", but when I was talking about war-gaming, "CRT" meant "combat results table". But I sincerely doubt that any American, even the person most wrapped up in programming forgets that "$" is a dollar symbol. I can't imagine someone going to the mall and seeing price tags and wondering why the store put variable names on all their products.

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Short Answer

It Depends on your world.

Long Answer:

If your world supposedly is a battle between Real and Mirror world, then you can formulate the meaning of the existing symbols of real world to work exactly opposite in Mirror world. If your world is on different planet, you can set up your own meanings for the same set of symbols, culture and civilization. If your world is same but you are writing a mystery or horror genre that requires consideration of a new meaning than the actual one for that symbol - in this case also you can smoothly make the readers accept the fact. If you are writing a constructed language, you can define the new symbol in a completely new way.

In short, it's relative and according to me depends on need of your story or plot. If your story or world or genre strongly demands it, do it - else leave it.

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