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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

The Guardian tells of a visiting British minister who presented a pocket watch to a Taiwanese official. When asked to comment on the gift, the official said he might sell it to a scrap dealer for some money. The stunned minister sniffed that in the UK a watch is precious because nothing is more important than time. When she added “I had no idea a gift like this could be seen as anything other than positive,” she revealed herself as someone who hadn’t done her homework. Had she bothered to take a few minutes, she would have learned that giving someone a timepiece is taboo in Chinese culture because the words meaning “giving a clock” and “attending an old person’s funeral” are near-synonyms. This is a cross-cultural example of how a simple word (clock) is not the same as the meaning (death). The separation of the two is what things like semiotics and linguistics are about: How meaning varies from culture to culture because the same concept is interpreted differently. 

I had only a general idea of what semiotics is, so I looked it up

The term comes from the field of medicine, where diagnoses are based on the principle that the physical symptom stands not for itself but for a condition or state. Etymyonline.com says semiotics was used to describe patients’ symptoms in terms of the conditions they indicated. A sore throat, rash, or bruise may tell of a cold, an allergy, or a broken bone.

Like so many of our words, it evolved to apply to other areas

Semiotics is from the Latin word meaning observant of signs. Decoding Semiotics caught my attention by telling me up front that defining semiotics is problematic because there are as many definitions of semiotics as there are semioticians.

It’s hard to imagine a field so esoteric that even experts can’t agree on a definition. I found this out for myself as I continued my search.

  • Merriam-Webster’s definition was full of technical jargon, best left to those who work in fields where they need shortcuts.
  • Oxford Bibliographies used simpler language, but it seemed incomplete after what I’d found about signs and symbols so far.
  • Wikipedia’s definition was too wordy and unclear.
  • Britannica’s was too simple.
  • Princeton University said semiotics is the study of how we mostly unconsciously interpret signs by relating them to familiar conventions. Not bad.
  • Marcel Danesi said, “Semiotics shows us all how we are swimming in an unstable soup of meaning, trying to find our way to a shore.”

Having read all those definitions and more, I’m willing to say that semiotics is the study of signs, their meanings, and how we interpret them

Take a look at the 30 faces below. See how the simple expressions evoke different moods, even when the variations are subtle.

Take a minute to look at each of the symbols below and see how much meaning they hold beyond the icon itself.

Signs with deeper meaning are everywhere we look.

The medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan said the semiotics of mass media help us to understand how cultural meanings are encoded into texts as well as objects and signs. He is best known for his communication theory, The Medium is the Message. His argument is that changes in the methods of communication have had more influence on society than the content of the messages. John Spacey explains it this way:

  • Word of mouth is the way people have exchanged information since the development of language. It is inefficient and creates rumors and information. 
  • Printed media led to the publication of books, newspapers, and magazines. It expanded the distribution of news, knowledge, and propaganda, transforming the world.
  • Electronic media allowed information to be transmitted in real-time via radio and television. 
  • Internet media democratized broadcasting by allowing people to broadcast to the entire world. The results included a fragmentation of shared experiences and a splitting of our culture into small subcultures, adding to a disintegration of social norms governing our behavior.
  • Interactive media, especially games, are so engaging and isolating that humans become increasingly immersed in virtual worlds.

Signs are my favorite part of semiotics

Signs are any images, sounds*, gestures, or motions that convey meaning. Philosopher John Locke said semiotics is the doctrine of signs. Charles Sanders Peirce (sic) said there are three main types of signs:

  • Icons resemble what they are related to (Road signs with symbols instead of words).
  • Indexes/Indices are things associated with what they indicate (Where there’s smoke, there’s fire).
  • Symbols are related to what they stand for (Traffic signals have red on the top, meaning stop; green on the bottom, meaning go; and yellow in between, meaning caution, although both Mork and Gallagher insist yellow means speed up and race through the intersection). The hats below are more than just hats because they tell us who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. The expressions help, too.

I’ve seen many odd and/or amusing signs as I traveled around the world

Some grew out of a perceived need, leading me to conclude there was once a problem.


This Buick dealer on Broad Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee is no longer in business. What is your association with the name?


Guys and Dolls is a musical that starred Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. The story is about compulsive gamblers, criminals, and seducers. When I saw it, I imagined little boy and girl gangsters in zoot suits and flapper dresses smoking cigarettes and drinking bootleg liquor out of hip flasks. What did you visualize?


Is the proximity of the words to the fire axe an accident or a heavy-handed warning?


This sign’s praying hands suggest the granting of a miracle involving deep-frying.


What about this sign showing you where to P?


What if I only need to stand?


Surely they can’t mean this literally, but I found it in the window of an electronics store.


This sign in a bank’s lobby suggests they don’t put much of a premium on care. The broken “R” has not been replaced, but someone did color in the missing part with a ballpoint pen.


Which is it?


What kind of pot?


It better be really cold.


It probably won’t surprise you to learn I found this sign in a country with extremely high rates of diabetes.


The symbol on the roof says Nazis to many. It is also an ancient religious symbol in some Eurasian, African, and American cultures. I found it in a country with lots of Buddhists.


I wonder how many they lost before adding the signs?


What kind of dreams do you get for less than $1?

Today’s tune

The Five Man Electrical Band performing their one hit, Signs, accompanied by Robert Wilbert’s clever photos and graphics.


Marketers are brilliant semioticians, most without even knowing what the word means. They use colors, shapes, and fonts to design logos and advertisements that communicate desired associations, including fun, luxury, economy, strength, power, and more. Cadillac once meant more than just a car, coming to mean “best in class,” a reputation long since lost. Leslie Vos gives us the example of Apple being more than just products. “People don’t queue for hours just to buy smartphones; they queue to buy status and a lifestyle.” 

*Click here for a memorable bit of music that conveys meaning far beyond the notes.

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