A symbol can take the form of anything “that represents or stands for something else” or is “used as a conventional representation of an object, function, or process,” according to Oxford Dictionaries. The word itself evolved from the Greek sumbolon: sun- (“with”) and ballein (“to throw”) add up to indicate a “mark, [or] token” of another thing. But there are plenty of symbols that seemingly have forgotten how to, well, symbolize something. Here are a few examples that have lost their meaning somewhere along the way (or never had one to begin with).
1. THE HEDERA ( ❧ )
Hedera is both the scientific and Latin name for ivy, which explains the symbol’s standard shape. But while this flashy fleuron—most commonly used as a decorative space-keeper (or, as Robert Bringhurst describes it, a “horticultural dingbat”)—still sees use as a section-ender or -separator in various written texts, it has lost all of its meaning from its use in Greek and Latin. A variety of hederas exist (enough to patch together into a working font) which makes the symbol a good option for glamming up the end of a chapter.
2. THE FLEUR-DE-LIS ( ⚜ )
The fleur-de-lis (or “flower of lily”) has been used to mark human moments from the grandiose to the grave. Historians traced the stylized flower (which may also represent an iris or similar blossom) through its prominent use by French nobility and as a major heraldic symbol in the middle ages, to possible roots in Mesopotamian and Babylonian times. Its background also includes a tragic role in the history of slavery. But despite its historical prominence, the symbol has never had its own inherent meaning. In fact, any meaning which its presence suggests—whether a citation of spiritual trinity or an echo of atrocity—is always within the eye of the beholder.
3. THE ASTERISK ( * )
The asterisk plays a wide range of roles, including serving as a linguistic and mathematical notation or an indicator that an error or typo is being corrected in a text or email. Still, typographers and historians aren’t sure how the symbol—known in Ancient Greece as “little star,” “capsule of the poppy,” and “small wheel with projections”—actually originated, or what it was supposed to mean.
Typographer Robert Bringhurst explains that the asterisk even shows up in “the earliest Sumerian pictographic writing and has been in continuous use as a graphic symbol for at least 5000 years." But most modern scholars think the cuneiform version and the modern asterisk are unrelated, preferring an origin at the Library of Alexandria to indicate problems with texts. Beyond that, its development is uncertain, and this symbol—used for footnotes, to indicate a person’s birth year, and even as decoration—may just have to continue serving its many purposes while keeping its secrets to itself.
4. THE LOOPED SQUARE ( ⌘ )
This squiggly symbol goes by many names, including the Cox Mound Gorget, which refers to its major role in the lives of Tennessee inhabitants as early as 1250 A.D. It also serves to indicate “places of interest” throughout the Nordic states (in Sweden, you might call it the sankthanskors symbol). But today, you know it for one of its more popular gigs: the “Apple command key” symbol.
Its place on Apple gear wasn’t always secure. Gizmodo explains that design enthusiast Steve Jobs “hated” a proposed version of the command or “Apple key," which meant that every single keyboard command that used that key had an Apple logo next to it on the monitor. Jobs told early Mac developer Andy Hertzfeld, "There are too many Apples on the screen! It's ridiculous! We're taking the Apple logo in vain! We’ve got to stop doing that!"
So bitmap artist Susan Kare “pored through an international symbol dictionary” and found the winning shape for adorning future Apple command keys: the looped square. As widely used as the looped square might be, however, it doesn’t change the fact that the attractive decorative symbol doesn’t have its own meaning—at least in the United States.