Sunday, 30 April 2017

π | pi

The Greek letter π (pi) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤐 ().

The number π (named so after the first letter of the Greek word περιφέρεια, “circumference”) is a mathematical constant, a transcendental number with approximate value of 3.141592. It is defined as the ratio of the circumference of a circle circumference C to its diameter D (or to twice the radius r):

π = C/D = C/2r

The lower-case letter π is also used as a symbol of:

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Saturday, 29 April 2017

ν | nu

Greek letter 𝛎 (nu) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤍 (nūn) which, in turn, is believed to be derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph of a snake.

The lower-case letter 𝜈 has found many uses in maths and sciences, such as:

For example, in Planck–Einstein relation, E is the energy of a photon, 𝜈 is its frequency and h is the Planck constant:

E = h𝜈

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Friday, 28 April 2017

星 | xīng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: xīng 🔊) means “star”, broadly speaking: it could be any heavenly body, celebrity, or a star shape. “Star” in a purely astronomical sense is 星星 (xīngxing).

You’d think that the Chinese could have chosen something like to represent a star, but no. The original form of was , which is made of (jīng) “sparkling” on top of now-familiar (shēng) “to give birth”, “to grow”, etc. In its turn, consists of three radicals (), “sun”. In , only one sun is left, but you get the picture. Many historical forms of this character look surprisingly similar to the Western astrological or astronomical symbols.

According to Wu Xing, the five elements correspond to the five visible planets (and vice versa) as follows:

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Thursday, 27 April 2017

生 | shēng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: shēng 🔊) is a word with many meanings. It could be a verb meaning “to live”, “to grow”, “to give birth” or “to light”, as in 生火 (shēnghuǒ, “to light a fire”); a noun meaning “life”, “living thing” or “student”; an adjective “fresh”, “innate”, “live”, “natural”, “raw”, “unfamiliar”, “uncultivated”, “unripe”; or an adverb “very”. Combining “to go out” with , we get 出生 (chūshēng 🔊), “to be born” or “birth”. A combination of and “day” is a word for birthday: 生日 (shēngrì 🔊).

may look like (wáng) with an extra stroke, but the origin of this character is very different: (“bud”) + “earth” = “a sprout coming out of the ground”, i.e. birth, growth etc.

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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

♇ | Pluto

and Pluto (alternate) are the astronomical and astrological symbols representing Pluto. This celestial body was named after Pluto (Πλούτων), the Greek and Roman god of the underworld, whose earlier Greek name was Hades (ᾍδης).

Pluto is not a classical planet and was unknown to alchemists. It was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh after almost a year of systematic search for trans-Neptunian “Planet X” predicted by Percival Lowell and William Pickering. Pluto was enjoying the status of planet until 2006 when it was reclassified (or “plutoed”) as a dwarf planet by International Astronomical Union (IAU).

The astronomical symbol for Pluto, , which looks like a flipped and flopped Cyrillic letter Б, is a monogram of the letters “P” and “L” which could be interpreted as the initials of Percival Lowell or “Pickering—Lowell”.

The astrological symbol for Pluto, Pluto (alternate), is more in line with other planetary symbols. According to Wikipedia, the circle represents Pluto’s Cap of Invisibility and the arc under the circle represents bident (not to be confused with bidet). Also, it could be thought of as a symbol of Mercury, , with circle and arc swapped. I like this latter symbol more because it looks like a flower.

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

♆ | Neptune

is an astronomical and astrological symbol representing the planet Neptune.

This planet was named after Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, whose Greek counterpart was Poseidon. Neptune is not a classical planet and was unknown to alchemists. Its existence was predicted by Urbain Le Verrier and it was discovered in 1846 by Johann Gottfried Galle.

According to Wikipedia, it was Le Verrier himself who proposed both the name and the symbol of a trident for the new planet. An alternative symbol, featuring letters “L” and “V” (in honour of Le Verrier), was proposed by François Arago but it never took off.

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Monday, 24 April 2017

⛢ | Uranus

and are the astronomical and astrological symbols representing the planet Uranus.

The planet got its name from the ancient Greek god of the sky Ouranos (Οὐρανός). It is the only planet in the Solar System named after the Greek deity. Uranus is not a classical planet and was unknown to alchemists.

According to Wikipedia,

The symbols for Uranus were created shortly after its discovery in 1781. One symbol, , invented by J. G. Köhler and refined by Bode, was intended to represent the newly discovered metal platinum; since platinum, commonly called white gold, was found by chemists mixed with iron, the symbol for platinum combines the alchemical symbols for iron, , and gold, . This symbol also combines the symbols of Mars () and the Sun () because in Greek mythology, Uranus represented heaven, and represents the combined power of Mars’ spear and the Sun. Another symbol, , was suggested by Lalande in 1784. In a letter to Herschel, Lalande described it as “un globe surmonté par la première lettre de votre nom” (“a globe surmounted by the first letter of your name”).
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Sunday, 23 April 2017

♁ | Earth

and are the astronomical symbols representing the planet Earth.

Earth was not one of the seven classical planets. You’d think it would be natural for astrologers to put Earth in the centre. But no. Juan Eduardo Cirlot writes in his Dictionary of Symbols:

But astrology and traditional symbolism owe their inspiration not to the Copernican system but to that which had been accepted by the Ancients. <...> At the same time, the fact of there being seven planets responds to the idea of the seven planetary heavens, which in turn tallies with that of the seven Directions or areas in space (which in turn, when transposed into terms of time, becomes the origin of the seven days of the week). The relationship of the planets to the seven points in space is as follows: Sun — the zenith, Moon — the nadir, Mercury — the centre, Venus — the West, Mars — the South, Jupiter — the East, and Saturn — the North.
One of symbols for Earth is a cross in a circle which could be thought of as a globe with equator and one meridian.

Another symbol is a stylised globus cruciger, , which looks like the upside-down “mirror of Venus, or maybe it is just where the cross went off-centre. Note its (unintentional) similarity with Chinese character “earth”. is also an alchemical symbol for antimony.

Earth deities include goddesses Cel, Cybele, Demeter, Gaia, Jörð, Ki, Māra, Mat Zemlya (Мать-Сыра Земля), Mokoš (Мокошь), Pachamama, Papahānaumoku, Sif, Terra (Tellus), Urash and Žemyna as well as gods Geb, Tudigong and Veles.

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Saturday, 22 April 2017

♄ | Saturn

is an astrological and astronomical symbol representing the planet Saturn.

This planet was named after Saturnus, the Roman god of agriculture, whose Greek counterpart was Cronus. In alchemical tradition, Saturn was associated with lead. The English word Saturday and Dutch zaterdag are derived from Latin Saturni dies, i.e. “day of Saturnus”.

But what about the symbol ? According to Wikipedia,

Saturn is usually depicted with a scythe or sickle, and the planetary symbol has apparently evolved from a picture of this attribute, in Kamateros (12th century) shown in a shape similar to the letter eta η, with the horizontal stroke added along with the “Christianization” of the other symbols <as we’ve already seen in the cases of Mercury and Venus> in the early 16th century.
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Friday, 21 April 2017

♀ | Venus

“The mirror of Venus” is an astrological and astronomical symbol representing the planet Venus.

The planet was named after Venus, the Roman goddess of sex, love, beauty, fertility and prosperity. Her Greek counterpart was Aphrodite. In alchemical tradition, Venus was associated with copper.

In many Romance languages, the word for Friday originates from Latin Veneris dies, i.e. “day of Venus” (divendres, vendredi, venerdì, viernes, vineri); Venus even found her way to Breton and Welsh (Gwener). In Germanic laguages, this day (fredag, Freitag, Friday, vrijdag) became connected with Freyja and/or Frigg, even it is not clear whether they were the same or two different goddesses.

According to Wikipedia, the mediaeval symbol for Venus did not have a horizontal stroke, which was added later to form a Christian cross, while “the idea that the symbol represents the goddess’ hand mirror dates to the 19th century”. In biology, medicine and genealogy, symbolises the female sex; in sociology and gender politics, the female gender.

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Thursday, 20 April 2017

♃ | Jupiter

is an astrological and astronomical symbol representing the planet Jupiter.

The Romans identified this planet with Jupiter aka Jove, the god of sky and thunder. His Greek counterpart was Zeus. In alchemical tradition, Jupiter was associated with tin.

In Romance languages, the word for Thursday originates from Latin Iovis dies, i.e. “day of Jove” (dijous, giovedì, jeudi, joi, jueves, xoves). In Germanic laguages, this day is connected with god Thor or Donar (donderdag, Donnerstag, Thursday, torsdag).

According to Wikipedia, the “less-than-intuitive symbol” has been variously interpreted as the letter ζ (for Ζεύς, “Zeus”), lightning bolt, or even “Egyptian hieroglyph for the eagle”. For me it is easier to remember as a symbol for Thursday, the fourth day of the week. I write the number “four” like 4, which also happen to be similar to Ч, the first letter of the Russian word четверг (Thursday).

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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

☿ | Mercury

is an astrological and astronomical symbol representing the planet Mercury.

The planet was named after the Roman messenger god, Mercury, whom the Romans identified with the Greek god Hermes. The symbol is a simplified version of caduceus (a staff entwined by two serpents) carried by Mercury/Hermes. In alchemical tradition, Mercury was associated with quicksilver (mercury).

In Romance languages, the word for Wednesday originates from Latin dies Mercurii, i.e. “day of Mercury” (mercredi, mercoledì, miércoles, miercuri). In Germanic laguages, this day became connected with god Odin or Wōden (onsdag, Wednesday, woensdag).

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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

♂ | Mars

The spear of Mars is an astrological and astronomical symbol representing the planet Mars.

In Mesopotamia, the planet Mars was associated with the god of war and pestilence Nergal. The ancient Greeks connected the planet with their god of war, Ares, and Romans identified it with Mars, their god of war and masculinity (as well as guardian of soldiers and farmers). In alchemical tradition, Mars was associated with iron. In Romance languages, the word for Tuesday originates from Latin Martis dies, i.e. “day of Mars” (mardi, martedì, martes, marți). In Germanic laguages, this day became connected with god Týr or Tiwaz (Dienstag, dinsdag, tirsdag, tisdag and so on).

The arrow and a circle in the current symbol represent spear and shield, respectively. In biology, medicine and genealogy, symbolises the male sex; in sociology and gender politics, the male gender.

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Monday, 17 April 2017

☽ | Moon

The crescent is a symbol representing the Moon. Note the similarity between and archaic forms of Chinese character (yuè).

In alchemical tradition, the Moon was associated with silver. In many European languages, the word for Monday originates from Latin Lunae dies, i.e. “moon day”, after Roman goddess Luna (lundi, lunedì, lunes, luni) or Germanic god Máni (maanantai, maandag, måndag, Montag, etc.). Other lunar deities include goddesses Anumati, Artemis, Chang’e, Hecate, Hina, Isis, Kuu, Mama Killa, Phoebe, Selene and Yemaya, as well as gods Ay Ata, Bahloo, Jarilo, Sin, Thoth and Tsukuyomi.

The crescent, typically in decrescent orientation , is associated with Islam. Its combination with a five-pointed star, the star and crescent , is used in a number of national flags. The flag of the Comoros shows the crescent and four stars; the Flag of Singapore has the crescent and five stars. The flag of the Maldives features a crescent without any stars.

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Sunday, 16 April 2017

☉ | Sun

The circled dot is an ancient symbol representing the Sun. Note the similarity between and Chinese ().

In alchemical tradition, seven metals were associated with the seven classical planets, which included the Sun and the Moon (but not Earth). The Sun’s metal was gold. In Hellenistic astrology, each classical planet had its own day of the week. Sól or Sunna was the name of the Sun goddess in Germanic mythology. English and other Germanic languages keep the association of Sun and Sunday. Other solar deities include goddesses Amaterasu, Grian, Marici, Saulė, Sulis and Xihe as well as gods Amun, Apollo, Helios, Ra, Shamash, Surya, Tonatiuh and Utu; the gender of the Guanche solar deity Magec is unknown.

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Saturday, 15 April 2017

i | і

Apart from being a letter of Latin alphabet, i can constitute a whole word.

In Catalan, Ladino, Latgalian and a number of Slavic languages, i (or і; Ukrainian and Belarusian letter і looks exactly like Latin i) is a conjunction meaning “and”. In Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Scots, Irish, Hawaiian, Rapa Nui, Tahitian and Tongan it’s a preposition “in”. In Foi language of Papua New Guinea, it may mean “eye”, “seventeen”, or “twenty-one”.

In chemistry, i stands for the Van ’t Hoff factor. In mathematics, i is used to denote

  1. imaginary unit, i.e. a square root of −1;
  2. index of summation, used to calculate a sum ; or
  3. index variable in a matrix.
is a symbol of an information source, such as tourist information centre.

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Friday, 14 April 2017

⚝ | pentagram

If you draw a star with five straight strokes, you’ll get a pentagram, also known as pantacle, pentacle, pentalpha, pentangle or Pythagorean star. While solid five-pointed stars are widely used in heraldry, the pentagram has been more typically employed in religious or occult contexts.

In Spanish and Portuguese, the word pentagrama could refer both to pentagram and musical stave.

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Thursday, 13 April 2017

| star

A five-pointed star, ☆, is a regular concave decagon.

It is found on many flags and coats of arms, usually in solid form, and often used as military insignia. A red star is often associated with communist ideology while a green star is a symbol of Esperanto. More than 2600 coral-pink stars grace the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

小 | xiǎo

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: xiǎo 🔊) means “small”, “short”, “little”, “minor”, “young” and such like. We’ve already seen as a part of another character, .

Wiktionary provides two interpretations of :

  1. It shows a person () with lowered arms, implying the meaning of small. In contrast, (the character for large), symbolizes a person () with arms outstretched.
  2. It shows an item divided into smaller parts by a knife .
Ponte Ryūrui, quoting Xǔ Shèn, writes that
represents small objects (such as shells or precious stones), or, more precisely, one object that was divided (the division is symbolised by “”) into eight parts (hence the shape of ...)
Uncle Hanzi is more laconic:
Three dots. Meaning small pieces.

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Tuesday, 11 April 2017

中 | zhōng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: zhōng 🔊) means “centre”, “middle”, “medium”, “within”, “among” and so on. It is also short for 中国 (Zhōngguó 🔊), one of the names of China, known in its (not quite accurate) English translation as “Middle Kingdom”. Combining 中国 with , we get 中国人 (Zhōngguórén 🔊), “a Chinese (person)” or “the Chinese (people)”.

According to one theory, is derived from an image of a flagpole:

Based on archaeological evidence, the middle box has been interpreted as a drum (建鼓). This flagpole with a drum was placed in the center of a field to gather people and to detect the direction of the wind.
Many historical forms of the character support this explanation. However, another theory is simpler and makes this character easier to remember:
It has also been interpreted as an arrow in the center of a target.

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Monday, 10 April 2017

国 | guó

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: guó 🔊) means “country” or “nation”.

Uncle Hanzi explains this character simply:

From walls and riches . Meaning country.
But how on earth jade in an enclosure came to signify “country”? In fact is a simplified form of , and this latter character is a combination of and . Although is not a simplified form of in its contemporary use (huó), used to be an original form of , “range” or “territory”, and was pronounced just like ().

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Sunday, 9 April 2017

囗 | wéi

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: wéi 🔊) means “(a fenced) enclosure”.

As a radical, is also used to signify “enclosure”. You can put it around some other hanzi to get a new meaning. It should not be confused with similar character (kǒu) “mouth” which you can put inside some other character. For example, if you put inside , you’ll get (huí).

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Saturday, 8 April 2017

玉 | yù

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: ) means “jade” and, by extension, “gem”, “precious stone” and “beauty”.

Uncle Hanzi writes:

The ancient character represents a three level jade object of worship which every ancient <Chinese, I suppose> would have recognized.
It could have been so, but historically this character looked exactly like , so a short stroke (or a dot) was added to distinguish between these two.

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Friday, 7 April 2017

王 | wáng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: wáng 🔊) means “king”. Wang (or Wong) is a popular family name shared by, among others, the film director Kar-wai Wong (王家卫; Wáng Jiāwèi) and the world-famous concert pianist Yuja Wang (王羽佳; Wáng Yǔjiā).

Ponte Ryūrui describes two theories of this character’s origin. One is that is a pictogram of an axe head, where the bottom stroke corresponds to the axe blade. Many historical forms of this character indeed show the bottom stroke thicker and/or having a fancier shape.

The association of the axe with the ruler comes from a ceremonial axe that was kept near the throne, and was used for performing rituals in ancient China.
Another theory is more symbolic:
The three vertical lines depict three powers: Heaven, Earth and Man (), which are then connected by a vertical line symbolising the ruler bracing those powers and taking control over them.
Again, many historical forms of show a man-like figure, or above a horizontal stroke (earth?).

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Thursday, 6 April 2017

♣ | clubs

“Clubs” is another confusing name. Italian and Spanish playing cards have a suit called bastoni / bastos (i.e. clubs), and these really show clubs or cudgels. But not in a French deck. According to Wikipedia,

The shape of the clubs symbol is believed to be an adaptation of the German suit of acorns. Clubs are also known as clovers, flowers and crosses. The French name for the suit is trèfles meaning clovers, the Italian name for the suit is fiori meaning flowers and the German name for the suit is Kreuz meaning cross.
indeed looks very much like shamrock, . The Russian names of this suit are крести (from крест, “cross”) or трефы (from French trèfles).

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Wednesday, 5 April 2017

| diamonds

In English, rhombus (◊) is often called a diamond. But why? The earliest and simplest of diamond cuts, the point cut, is a regular octahedron. A projection of an octahedron which looks like a rhombus could have been a reason to name this shape a “diamond”. Somehow this geometrical observation did not find its way to other languages. By the mid-15th century, more advanced cuts were introduced and “diamond-shaped” diamonds were passé.

The suit of a French deck, known as carreaux (tiles) was derived in 15th century from the German suit of Schellen (bells). Those round bells look nothing like the tiles, though. One might think that French, for simplicity sake, just decided to “square the circle”. According to Wikipedia, however, “between the transition from the suit of bells to tiles there was a suit of crescents”. Interestingly, the bell—diamond connection of still lives in the Russian name бубны (or буби), from бубенцы, “bells”.

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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

♠ | spades

Are you missing Chinese characters already? Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about them. But let me continue with playing cards. According to Wikipedia,

The Latin suits consist of coins, clubs, cups, and swords. They are the earliest suit-system in Europe, having been adopted from the cards imported from Mamluk Egypt and Moorish Granada in the 1370s. <...> Ultimately the suits can trace their roots back to China where playing cards were first invented. <...> The concept of suits predate playing cards and can be found in Chinese dice and domino games such as Tien Gow.
[Tien Gow is a Westernised (Pinyin: tiān jiǔ) which, as you may have figured out by now, literally translates as “Heaven and Nine”.]
Chinese money-suited cards are believed to be the oldest ancestor to the Latin suit-system. The money-suit system is based on denominations of currency: Coins, Strings of Coins, Myriads of Strings, and Tens of Myriads. Old Chinese coins had holes in the middle to allow them to be strung together. A string of coins could easily be misinterpreted as a stick to those unfamiliar with them. The Mamluks called their suit of cups Myriads and this may have been due to inverting the Chinese character for myriad (). The Mamluk suit of swords may also have been inspired by the Chinese numeral for Ten ().
If this is indeed so, then swords (what we now call “spades” in English was derived from the Spanish word espada, “sword”) must be a direct descendant of and the oldest suit of Chinese origin which we still use in a French deck.

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Monday, 3 April 2017

| heart

Many, many years ago, when I first saw a real (chicken) heart, I was surprised that it did not look at all like I thought the “real” heart should. No encyclopaedias and medical textbooks available to me then and since mentioned the “heart-shaped” hearts either. And what has to do with love? True, the heart keeps us alive, but shouldn’t there be organs a bit more directly responsible for love? It was not until I read Betty Dodson’s Sex for One that I got an explanation — mind you, not the explanation, just a hypothesis... still, way better than anything I came across before.

The geometric shape ♥ was known since antiquity but was rather associated with foliage than heart. According to Wikipedia, the first known depictions of a heart as a symbol of romantic love date to the 13th—14th centuries, but the hearts in question were shown either pine cone- or pear-shaped. Maybe those latter objects were just pears.

Various hypotheses attempted to connect the “heart shape” as it evolved in the late medieval period with instances of the geometric shape in antiquity. Such theories are modern, proposed from the 1960s onward, and they remain speculative, as no continuity between the supposed ancient predecessors and the late medieval tradition can be shown. Specific suggestions include: the shape of the seed of the silphium plant, used in ancient times as an herbal contraceptive, and stylized depictions of features of the human female body, such as the female’s buttocks, pubic mound, or spread vulva. <...> Inverted heart symbols have been used in heraldry as stylized testicles (coglioni in Italian) as in the canting arms of the Colleoni family of Milan.
Whatever theory is right, I hope from now on you’d think a few moments more before investing in a T-shirt or tea mug with “I something” on it.

The red heart has been used on playing cards as a suit since the 15th century. Hearts, Herz, cœurs, corazones... In Russian, however, this suit is called черви or червы, from the adjective червонный, “red”.

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