Like words, symbols are means of communication with specific meanings which can serve as a means of identifying members of a group or organization. It can also be used as means of identification among people who have a common religion or political ideology.
Most modern symbols are simple and easy to understand. Virtually everyone in the world knows that a thumbs up means ‘welldone’ while a thumbs down is a sign of discontent but many of these symbols did not start out with the meaning that everyone attaches to them today.
For example, virtually everyone in the world knows that the infinity symbol is used in mathematics to represent an infinite number of space or time even though its original meaning had nothing to do with mathematics at all. In ancient Tibet and India where it originated from, the infinity symbol represented dualism, perfection and the union between male and female.
Another example is the swastika which is now associated purely with Nazism and the Third Reich when sometimes in ancient history, it was regarded as a peaceful and sacred symbol in Eurasia. Even today, some people in India still see the swastika as a sacred symbol and nothing that must be feared or hated. The same is true for the hippie peace signs.
The inverted ‘three lines in a circle’ and ‘the finger ‘V’ signs’ are two symbols that are usually associated with the hippies counterculture movement. In the modern world, these two symbols mean ‘peace’ but at the time they were created, both of them had different meanings.
THE ‘THREE LINES IN A CIRCLE’ PEACE SYMBOL
The peace symbol popularly used today by members of the hippies counterculture movement was first used during the late 1950s for a nuclear disarmament march in London. It was created by a British artist and activist, Gerald Holtom as an easy to remember logo for a group that was concerned about the use of nuclear weapons on two Japanese cities during the second world war and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons by U.S., England and the Soviet Union after it.
To create this logo, Holtom made use of a circle and two characters from the flag semaphore alphabet as some sort of visual telegraph that anyone could easily understand.
The message of the logo was simple. In the flag semaphore alphabet, the two lines at 45° angles to the vertical line were supposed to represent the letter ‘N’ which Holtom wanted to stand for ‘Nuclear’ and the vertical line, ‘D’ for ‘Disarmament’. The march was such a success that before long, the logo associated with it could be seen everywhere, on TVs, on car stickers and even buttons.
Before long, this logo was adopted as an anti-war symbol by pacifists who did not like the number of people that were dying daily in the war between U.S. and Vietnam. A faction of these pacifists became what is today known as the hippies counterculture movement and they took with them this symbol which infused with their preachings of peace, love and harmony became known as a peace symbol.
THE ‘V-SIGN’ PEACE SYMBOL
The V-Sign which has become a symbol of peace in pop-culture did not start out with the same beautiful meaning as it does today. In fact, at one time and in some places in the world (especially Britain), it was seen as an offensive sign.
The history of the V-sign is said to have started sometimes in the early 15th century at the Battle of Agincourt when the French said that they would cut the index and middle fingers of the English archers if they lost. The English did but lose and as a gesture of disdain, they flashed their intact index and middle fingers to the French. So, till today, raising up the number two with the other fingers curled into your palm and facing you is seen as a sign of disdain by some people in Britain.
The variation of the V-sign which eventually became recognized as the peace sign started out in1941 as a victory sign suggested by the former Belgian Minister of Justice, Victor de Laveyele. He was of the opinion that the fingers symbolized the letter ‘V’ for Victory. It was to be an emblem to rally all Belgians during the second world war.
Later that year, Winston Churchill acknowledged the hand sign after giving a speech on the second world war and enjoined everyone to adopt the hand sign. Later he changed the hand sign to make the palm face out after discovering that some Britons found it offensive.
Later in the U.S., the symbol was adopted by pacifists and counter-culturists who were against the war as a symbol of peace. That meaning has stuck till today.
Photo Credits: Pete Johnson