02 September 2011


Some symbols are iconic. Even if you have never seen ☎ before, you can probably guess it is something to do with a telephone; and → inherently indicates something about looking right or turning right, or maybe being careful about arrows that are being fired from the left.

In contrast, many symbols are purely arbitrary. Sometimes it is hard to remember this when you have grown up with symbols that you are thoroughly familiar with.

Take ✓ and ✗, for example. We have come to believe that there is something inherently cheerful and positive about the tick and something negative and bad about the cross; but in fact, there isn't. If you had never seen either of these before, you would not be able to determine which one indicates that something is correct.

I was reminded of this when I was trying to decipher the meaning of the symbols on top of the fan in my living room:The one on the far left is clearly something about swinging, and the next one from the left is connected with timing. The second from the right is something to do with the the blowing of the fan (though quite what, I am not too sure). But what about the other two? I have no idea.

From trial and error, I have worked out that the top right one is the on-off switch. Splendid, though it remains a mystery why that represents on and off.

But what about the middle one? I am totally stumped.

Now, most of you growing up in the modern era might find this rather pathetic. You know exactly what it means, and you cannot imagine that anyone might have a problem. But just spare a thought for old fogeys like me who can't deal with new-fangled symbols like this. (I have tried hitting it a few times, but I am still mystified.)

Anyway, even if you know exactly what it means, have a look at it and see if you can explain to me in what way it is iconic rather than arbitrary.

(If I could find the instruction manual, I could of course solve this riddle immediately. But I can't find the damned thing; and who ever reads instruction manuals for goodness sakes?)