How to Find What a Symbol Means

Cultures and religious groups use symbols in everyday life.

Symbols are used for many reasons: to indicate membership in a gang, group or secret society; to identify a company; or to show religious or political affiliation. Symbols are also used in math and science equations, road signs and languages. Due to their graphic nature, it is difficult to use search engines to identify a symbol and its meaning. Fortunately, there are many references available to help identify different symbols.

Print the symbol, take a picture of it or draw it so you will remember all of its details. Use color in the reproduction if possible.

Search for the symbol using an online symbol-identification database (see Resources). allows users to enter the symbol’s characteristics and returns matching symbols. Living Arts Originals allows users to browse flower, animal, color, nature and other common symbols and gives information about the symbols’ meanings. Whats-Your-Sign allows users to browse through many Chinese characters, astrology symbols and other ethnic and religious symbols.

Visit a local tattoo parlor. If the shop isn’t too busy, you can ask one of the artists for help identifying the symbol. Many tattoo artists have a lot of reference material and experience with different types of symbols including foreign language characters, religious and occult symbols. If the artist can’t identify the specific symbol, he will probably recognize something about it, such as country of origin, which will narrow down your search.

Contact a local university professor for help if you have an idea what the symbol is related to. If the symbol is in an equation, contact a math or science professor. If the symbol has Asian or Middle Eastern characters, contact the appropriate language professor. Send a polite email with an attached image of the symbol. You can also contact a university reference librarian who may have more success getting a response from the appropriate faculty member.

Christina Sloane has been writing since 1992. Her work has appeared in several national literary magazines.