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Element of communication intended to represent or stand for a person, object, group, process, or idea. Symbols may be presented graphically (e.g., the red cross and crescent for the worldwide humanitarian agency) or representationally (e.g., a lion representing courage). They may involve associated letters (e.g., C for the chemical element carbon), or they may be assigned arbitrarily (e.g., the mathematical symbol for infinity). Symbols are devices by which ideas are transmitted between people sharing a common culture. Every society has evolved a symbol system that reflects a specific cultural logic; and every symbolism functions to communicate information between members of the culture in much the same way as, but more subtly than, conventional language. Symbols tend to appear in clusters and to depend on one another for their accretion of meaning and value. See alsosemiotics.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on symbol, visit Britannica.com.