Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

Chapter Five:

Creation of Symbols

You go to a store and pick out a pair of pants. At the counter the clerk tells you the price and you hand over several pieces of paper printed in green and black. The clerk accepts the paper and you take the pants. Why?

You're on your way home. At an intersection you see a colored light and stop your car. When another colored light replaces the first, you continue on your way. Why?

What is there about green paper that makes it equal to a pair of pants? What is the significance of colored lights that they can dictate your actions? The answer is that they are symbols.

In order to think about something, it is necessary to convert the input (sensory impressions, concepts, experiences, etc.) into symbols that stand for what you have sensed.

Let's start by defining "symbol". A symbol is an abstraction that stands for something else. For example, a dollar bill is a symbol for purchasing power. A red light is a symbol for "stop moving".

Note what has happened. A material object such as a dollar bill has become more than just the object. It has become a symbol standing for something else.

Many things that humans perceive have more than just their perceptible features: they also represent other things. When you look at a dollar bill, you do not see only colored paper. You also see what that bill represents -- purchasing power.

Perhaps other animals attach collateral meanings to direct impressions, but humans definitely do. For instance, for an animal the Moon may simply be an unfaithful light source. To humans, the Moon is not only light, but stands for time, the gods, a calendar, a source of mystery and wonder, an adjunct of romance. Virtually every direct impression is embued with meanings beyond its mere existence.


The human mind, however, cannot contain material things such as paper or lights for symbols. Instead, the symbols must be immaterial. Such symbols are usually words (which are themselves collections of symbols called alphabets) standing for direct or indirect impressions. The word "symbol" is itself a symbol, an abstract term that has no meaning in and of itelf. Let me prove that. Here is the word:


Stare at this word for several seconds and say it out loud over and over. I'll wait. . .

. . .

Doesn't mean anything anymore, does it? It has turned into a collection of funny-shaped black marks on the page, and a jumble of nonsense noises. The word "symbol" is an abstraction, meaning what you want it to mean.

Humans convert virtually all direct and indirect impressions into symbols. The symbols that humans create are words. Every word consists of two components, a denotative and a connotative (for a complete discussion of denotation and connotation see Chapter 7, THE POWER OF WORDS). The denotative component is the direct impression for which the word stands. The connotative component is the indirect impression you have when reading or hearing the word.

You learn a set of words, or vocabulary, starting shortly after birth. Parents, siblings and relatives, using their own vocabularies, show the denotative meanings of their symbols. Their actions and reactions to words show their connotative meanings. In this way one learns many of the symbols for direct and indirect impressions.

For example, you see a small, eight-legged, two-segmented animal. Someone near you, your parent or sibling, provides you with the symbol for this animal -- spider. Thus you have the denotative meaning for the word. In addition, your parent or sibling reacts with fear or horror, or gentleness and care toward the animal. In this way you get the connotative meaning. The next time you see that or a similar animal, you'll invoke the symbol "spider". The symbol can be consciously manipulated -- connected with other symbols, placed in future or past connections, etc. Thus, you are able to think about it.

Thus it is that direct impressions are converted into concrete symbols, words that stand for sensory inputs. When you look at a tree, you receive the input of light waves. Your mind then translates that input into the symbol "tree". If you recognize the specific specie of tree through further sensory input (configuration of limbs, shape of leaves) you modify the symbol, sometimes with an additional symbol -- "maple tree".

Of course, if nobody gives you a symbol for a direct impression, you will often create one of your own. Pre-speech children make sounds that they consistently apply to direct impressions: I know of a child named Amy that applies a symbol that sounds like "mieu" (pronounced like "me-you") to cats and kittens. Whenever she sees a cat, she points at it and uses her symbol, mieu; perhaps it is her version of the sound a cat makes -- meow. Eventually she will learn the conventional symbol for her culture and society, cat. Until then, her symbol will do her quite well.

[As a side note, there are some theories that language arose through the same process that Amy uses. For instance, names of animals came from someone's perception and attempts to imitate the sounds they make.]

Often people invent new words as needed or desired. James Kane of the New York Journal wanted a word for photographs of women's legs; he used the word cheescake. When a senator wanted a word to describe the circumlocution and rhetoric used by others in the Senate, he invented the word Gobbledygook; that senator was Maury Maverick. (He was a descendent of Sam Maverick, whose own name became synonymous with "individualist" or "renegade".) Edward Kasner, a mathematician, knew there were words for large numbers such as million and billion and quintillion, but needed a word for the number 1 x 10100 (1 followed by 100 zeroes). His young son said to call it a googol, and Kasner accepted it. It is now accepted generally.

Other words invented include quisling, serendipity, squawk, teetotal, yes-man, countdown, and blurb, all now common symbols. (A fun example is "ecdysiast", a word invented by H.L. Mencken based on the Greek for "getting out." It means "stripper".)


Concrete symbols, those for direct impressions, can be understood by just about anyone: use the symbol "chair", then point to a chair, and most people will be willing to agree with you--we will accept "chair" as the symbol for that particular piece of furniture (or chaise, silla, sedia, cadeira, scaun, stuhl, stoel, stol, krzeslo, stolica, tuoli, kursi, stul, karek'la, maqaad, kissai, isu, kiti, etc., depending on the system of symbols called language you elect to use for this example).

Such is not the case with abstractions: you can't use the symbol "truth" and then point at a truth--there is no such concrete object. From where do such symbols come?

Perhaps other animals apply labels to direct impressions (this smell, this person; this feeling, electricity), as humans do. However, humans also create symbols that stand for abstractions as well as concrete experience.

Let us take the example of the tree from above. Not only do you input the direct impression of configuration and leaf shape. Other inputs are added: the leaves are yellowing, there are leaves on the ground, the air temperature is lower than it was a month ago, the wind is chilly. These inputs are converted into the symbol "autumn".

Please note that last symbol, autumn. It is a symbol that stands for a condition, for a group of sensory impressions, not a symbol standing for a single direct impression such as "tree". Autumn is thus a symbol for an indirect impression.

Symbols for indirect impressions, symbols that are abstract rather than concrete, are based on life experiences to which others, such as family, peers, schools, political systems, etc., apply labels.

Let us take, for example, the symbol "beauty". Beauty is an abstraction, based on each individual's way of perceiving the world. An examination of paintings and photographs of "beautiful" women produced over the centuries shows the variation in what people considered feminine pulchritude. Reubens and Titian regarded as the acme of beauty a woman who was approximately as wide as she was tall. The late 19th century was the era of the bustle, accentuating the woman's derriere as a sign of beauty.

In the 1920s women strapped down their chests to achieve a unibreast appearance. In the 1960s Twiggy, a fashion model so thin and lacking in secondary sex characteristics as to disappear when she turned sideways was the ideal.

The above is, of course, the Europo-American idea of beauty. In some African tribes, the epitome of beauty might be a neck stretched several inches by brass rings, a lip with a wooden disc two or three inches in diameter inserted, or scarring of the skin. In China before the 20th century, women's feet were bound to make them only three inches long, a sign of great beauty. An Australian Bushwoman's most attractive feature is her steatopygic derriere, which juts out so far it is often possible to balance a vase on it. Flathead Indians of the American West used to tie their babies into frames with a board bound tightly against their foreheads to shape the bone into a long slope.

Elizabethan women plucked not only their eyebrows but their hairlines until their foreheads seem to extend to the top of their heads.

As you can see from the above, beauty is not an absolute but a relative opinion based on culture and society. The same reasoning applies to any abstract term. One person's truth is another's lie, one's justice is another's injustice, one's equality is another's inequality. Humpty Dumpty was right -- what a particular word means depends on who's defining it.


It is symbolism that is the basis of thinking, and the major difference between human beings and other life forms on Earth (at least, so far as we know: who can tell what a whale or a dolphin does to store impressions, or what great, slow thoughts a sequoia indulges in to while away the centuries?). Humans not only manipulate symbols, such as this smell indicates that person as a dog does, but create symbols as well.

Symbols are created as a way to comprehend something. Much of what humans need to comprehend are gestalts rather than discrete items. For instance, "television" is a discrete item, an electronic device for the reception of microwave signals and the conversion of the signals to sight and sound. However, the word "television" also represents a gestalt of concrete and abstract items and ideas: entertainment, an advertising medium, news, sports, information, a business, electronics, etc..

All of the items and ideas are placed in a pigeonhole in the mind called a stereotype (see Chapter 4, STORAGE, for a discussion of stereotype storage). Symbols are the labels created to allow your memory to trigger a particular stereotype mentally rather than through a direct impression (one of the items in that pigeonhole is the symbol so a sensory trigger can be named).

For example, the word "equality" has no concrete meaning outside of mathematics. When applied to human interaction, equality means what whoever is defining it says it means. However, "equality" is a label. If you read, hear or think the label it triggers a stereotype; that stereotype determines the word's definition for the person holding the stereotype. An image could be conjured in your mind of several people of both sexes and a range of races standing together in easy companionship. It could be an obviously rich person and an obviously poor person standing before a judge. Whatever you associate the word equality with is your definition. These associations are the stereotype. The odds of it being exactly the same as anyone else's definition is small, but with enough points of similarity the symbol can be used for communication. With few points of similarity, the word can lead to misunderstanding.

The same is true of words that have a concrete as well as abstract meaning. For example "scientist" is a concrete word applied to a person who works in a scientific field using the scientific method, or, in a corollary to a Supreme Court ruling, a scientist is a person who does science. However, "scientist" also triggers the stereotype labelled "scientist." Depending on how you regard scientists it could be white coat, bemused look, glasses, pocket full of pencils and pens, standing in a laboratory. It could be someone in a dark room lit only by bunsen burners and electrical apparatus, crouched over a retort plotting the end of humanity.


The collection of words that anyone possesses is called their vocabulary. This collection contains all the symbols that person has for direct and indirect impressions. The larger the vocabulary the larger the number of items and concepts that person can comprehend.

The English language has arguably the largest overall vocabulary among the languages of the world today. It contains approximately 750,000 words, and adds about 400 every year. Of these the average American recognizes between 25,000 and 35,000, and uses in daily conversation about 3,000. [Side Note -- the artificial language Esperanto has a basic vocabulary of 800 words, sufficient for most basic communication needs.]

You may wonder what the other 700,000+ words in English are that the average person doesn't recognize them. Many of them are technical terms created by practitioners in a field to be specific to other practitioners about what they mean. Here are some examples:

curved cross
ad lib




white space

Various Sciences:

Various Humanities:

Each of the words above has a very specific meaning to the person who uses it. However, to those people who do not recognize the word, for whom the word is not a label that triggers a stereotype, it is a meaningless noise or design on the page.

In addition, some words mean one thing to one person and something totally different to another. For instance, the word "work." To the average person, the word "work" can mean the effort expended to do something, or employment, or doing something, or something done, or the place something is done, or manipulating something, or to mold, or to weave, or to . . . . As you can see, the definition of "work" is many and varied. However, to a physicist, work is a very specific word with only one meaning, the amount of energy that must be expended to cause a specific amount of displacement, often expressed in foot/pounds. Thus, "work" to a physicist would be how much energy necessary to move an object with a mass of one pound one foot.

Also note that the same word can appear in more than one list above, but mean something totally different according the field. The word "platform" appears in both the Theatre and Advertising lists. However, in theatre a platform is a piece of a set that allows the stage floor to be at different levels. In advertising a platform is a written plan of action for the creative portion of a campaign. "Form" appears in the theatre, science, and construction lists. To the average person a form is a sheet of paper with blanks to be filled in. In science it is the physical conformation of a body, in theatre it is the grace (or lack of grace) of a person's movement, in construction it is a set of wood or metal sheets into which concrete is poured that keeps the concrete in a specific shape until it drys.

Thus, even when there is a specific meaning for a word, it changes according to who's using it in what context.

There are also many words in the English vocabulary that are jargon -- words whose purpose is often to obfuscate, confuse, or simply limit the people who understand to an elite few. In many instances jargon originally had a purpose, to ensure accuracy in the meaning. Today, however, using a plain English word rather than an esoteric multi-syllabic term in Latin or Greek would be just as, if not more accurate, and allow people who have not studied a particular field to understand.

For example, in law there is the plea of nolo contendre. This is perfectly clear to a lawyer, but not to the layperson. It simply means "no contest", that the defendant does not contest the accusation. Surely simply pleading no contest rather than the Latin nolo contendre would be just as clear.

There is, of course, a traditional basis for the use of Latin and Greek in law and medicine. They were the languages of the learned men who originated their study. Nonetheless, when these languages were no longer the basis of study, there was no real reason to continue their use, other than to exclude from understanding anyone who did not learn law or medicine.

Since English has so large a vocabulary and thus flexibility there is no necessity for using dead languages for the everyday use in nontechnical fields. If they are used there must be another reason.

One that has been advanced is that many fields wish deliberately to exclude nonmembers from knowledge. For instance, if an average layman could understand doctors or lawyers or sociologists, then those fields would lose a certain mystique and therefore respect.

Here are some examples. From the aerospace industry, a "stable two position" simply means upside down. "A pilot's failure to maintain sufficient altitude to avoid neighboring terrain" means the airplane flew into the side of a mountain. Neither example clarifies the situation through using technical jargon rather than plain English. Instead it obscures.

Sociologists seem to take a special delight in discussing their field in as convoluted a way as possible. For example: "We are a heterogeneous population with divergent opinions on historicism, longitudinal research and theoretical orientation of symbolic interactionism." As far as I am able to translate this into plain language, it seems to say that we are a lot of different people with a lot of different ideas.

Science and academia are other areas that seem to regard words as a way to impress rather than express. For example, here is a passage from a book about how to write well:

"I then invite the students to make some connections between the act of learning and the use of language: first, by asking them to consider some of the implications of an act of learning seen as an action with language--a process in which the quality of one would seem to depend on the quality of the other--and second, by asking them to examine the relation of approach to result in the context of some specific examples of the learning process."

I am certain that the above has made the connection between learning and language perfectly clear.

An example in "scientese": We have found that the individual under study should find the most feasible means that will enable him or her, as the case may be, to enter into a rapid repose, facilitating, as soon as possible, an actual somnolent condition along an interface as well as a precocious cessation of the condition and re-entry into a scheduled plan of activities that will maximize salubrious and/or salutary conditions, in addition to factors which favor a rise in profits or, as the circumstance may dictate, greater growth in the level of mental performance and achievement.

Perhaps this would be clearer in plain language: Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.


One of the remarkable and characteristic properties currently under intensive laboratory stude is tht when a metallic receptacle is subjected to a careful and continuous scrutiny of a deliberate nature, the mixture which it is the nature and purpose of the said receptacle to contain will not, in point of fact, undergo a phase change and permit entry into a gaseous form at any point in time within the duration of the aforementioned scrutiny. ("A watched pot never boils.")

It can be, and has been argued that such obscure language is not obscure to those who need to understand it, and that the words are symbols for more specific direct and indirect impressions than plain English and are less open to misinterpretation. The latter is quite possible: the lists of technical terms above are examples of symbols with very specific meanings. Such terms remove the need to explain what you mean -- a construction worker can ask for a rebar rather than a steel rod that is used to strengthen concrete. However, people generally accept the idea that there are technical terms in every field, and if they don't understand the word it is because they are not in that field.

Law and medicine do indeed have many terms and phrases the purpose of which is to guarantee understanding. For instance, one of the purposes of law is to create ironclad documents, ones in which there is no possibility of a word being interpreted in any way but the one intended. Saying "go" is not as specific as "proceed by walking, physical control by steering wheel, tiller or electrical or electronic direction of steering servomotors of a vehicle powered by internal combustion engine, steam engine, wind power, or muscle power, either human or animal, or as a non-controlling occupant of the said vehicle." The former is easy to say and understand, the latter stated precisely what is meant, without ambiguity or possibility of misunderstanding.

Medicine must also be precise: a misinterpretation of a word can lead to illness or death.

It is the use of jargon to ensure misunderstanding of even simple concepts such as those given above that is unnecessary. It is a deliberate attempt to limit those who "need to know what is meant" to a certain group.


There are other jargons that are created to distort or hide meaning. One needs only look at the Watergate hearings for such phrases as "what we said before is no longer operative." What this phrase means is, "we lied before and we've been caught." However, a statement being "no longer operative" sounds like technology has surpassed our previous efforts and leaves no impressions of either lying or apologizing for lying.

Let's take a look at some examples of using jargon to obscure. Ron Zeigler, Richard Nixon's press secretary answered a quesiton about the condition of some of the Watergate tapes:

"I would feel that most of the conversations that took place in those areas of the White House that did have the recording system would in almost their entirety be in existence but the special prosecutor, the court, and I thin, the American people are sufficiently familar with the recording system to know where the recording devices existed and to know the situation in terms of the recording process but I feel, although the process has not been undertaken yet in preparation of the material to abide by the court decision, really, what the answer to that question is."

To which I reply, HUH!?!

Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors once explained why inflation wasn't going away:

"It is a very tricky policy problem to find the particular calibration and timing that would be appropriate to stem the acceleration in risk premiums created by falling incomes without prematurely aborting the decline in the inflation-generated risk premiums."


The military often uses jargon. "Free fire zone," "resource control program," and "air support" are all examples of phrases that give no indication of what is really meant. More and more, we see the use of "high-falutin'" words that obscure. For example, "the man compromised our central jail release system" means he escaped; a "calcium carbonate display unit" is a blackboard; a "driving impact device" is a hammer; and "philosophically disillusioned" means scared. In no case does the former symbol more clearly represent a direct or indirect impression than the latter.


An interesting facet of the English language is that, although it adds 400 new words a year, it also loses words. Often words that were a part of everyday vocabulary in the past are now considered passe or are not known at all.

For example, one of my favorites is "snirtle." It is a kind of quiet laugh, a cross between a snort and a chortle. One rarely hears "snirtle" anymore, although people continue to snirtle.

Hippies could have been called acersecomic (one whose hair was never cut). Everyone knows what an atheist is, but what about an adaemonist, someone who denies belief in the devil? A guy could get his face slapped if he called his girlfriend a bellibone, but it means beautiful girl (from the French belle et bonne, "beautiful and good").

Often words are fads, and go through a life and death cycle like the hula hoop, the pet rock, and Cabbage Patch dolls. For a time, everyone uses them, and then they suddenly disappear (not entirely, but those that continue to use them are usually considered dated and out-of-touch). Far-out and right-on, boss and gnarly, hip, hep and hop are such words. At one time they were symbols for non-main-stream subcultures (usually expressing aprobation) and helped to set them apart. When they were preempted by the main-stream, the subcultures stopped using them and invented new ones.


Humans are symbol creators, imbuing direct impressions with collateral meanings, and inventing symbols, words, that stand for direct and indirect impressions. In this way whatever they have perceived or learned can be recalled and manipulated. That is the topic of the next chapter.

Go To Chapter Six: The Process of Thinking

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