In the usage I prefer, sign designates something which stands for something else. Any content-word in the language is a sign, being a spoken or written vehicle for an immaterial meaning that refers to some experience.
A symbol is a sign which has further layers of meaning. In other words, a symbol means more than it literally says. (Signs are literal; symbols are not).
Notice that a symbol can have more than one layer of further meaning. The more profound the symbol, the greater the complexity of the layers of meaning (although the symbol itself may be quite simple).
When the author of Ecclesiastes (9.4) tells his readers that it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion, he uses the literal significance of "dog" and "lion," coupled with their cultural associations, to refer to conditions of human life.
There are three layers (at least) in this saying:
- the literal meaning of "lion" and "dog"--two different species of mammal;
- the cultural associations of both animals--the lion is noble, strong, courageous; the dog is ordinary, weak, cowardly.
- the application to human character: The cultural associations are transferred from dogs and lions to human beings; the application makes a point about life.
Symbols can have three kinds of association; often a symbol will have all three. The associations are
Works such as An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Symbols (J. C. Cooper) or A Dictionary of Symbols (J. E. Cirlot) attempt to present both cultural and universal meanings of symbols.
Meaning precedes explanation. (Evangelous Christos)
In interpreting literature, it is important to remember that a poem or a short story means more than the writer consciously intended. It can have this surplus of meaning because of the way language works. Many images ("signs") in a work of literature will have personal, cultural, and universal associations for both reader and writer.
Neither writer nor reader is in control of these associations. We acquire the associations all through our life, and usually without being aware that we are acquiring them. When we speak, write, read, dream, or engage in any symbolic activity, these meanings are there naturally and unavoidably.
Thus, while a writer may intend to express certain meanings, the meaning he or she expresses will exceed what was consciously intended. Literature is rich and has lasting value because of its surplus meaning, the many layers of meaning it can convey to varied readers.
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