How would you identify the meaning of this symbol?
April 21, 2016 5:45 AM   Subscribe

A colleague likes to put riddles and challenges on the chalk board. This particular question is about how to discover the meaning of an "ungoogleable" symbol. I jokingly suggested that Ask Metafilter is the right answer, and now I am challenged to see if that's right.
posted by anotherpanacea to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Using a clue from your colleague's twitter, I searched "Lord's prayer 1668 symbol" and found the following page. It appears the symbol means "Father".
posted by El_Marto at 6:05 AM on April 21, 2016 [23 favorites]

Internet won, El Marto!

That's it, in one. Genius.
posted by taff at 6:10 AM on April 21, 2016

The best answer to the question on the blackboard is probably "Ask a reference librarian for help," though.
posted by No-sword at 6:20 AM on April 21, 2016 [17 favorites]

Searching "John Wilkins real character" also gets you this Wikipedia:
posted by susiswimmer at 6:30 AM on April 21, 2016

In the edition of John Wilkins’ Essay available on Google Books, the image on the page El_Marto linked to is on page 421. It also comes up on p. 395, where it’s defined as ‘parent’. On page 396, Wilkins describes the composition of the symbol in detail.
posted by misteraitch at 6:34 AM on April 21, 2016

Apparently, however, I can't link properly: here you go.

The "Wilkins Scheme" section has the same version of the Lord's Prayer that El_Marto linked.
posted by susiswimmer at 6:35 AM on April 21, 2016

I recognized it off the bat as a character from Wilkins's Essay, but I've been beaten to the punch!
posted by brianogilvie at 7:10 AM on April 21, 2016

Looks like it's actually "our father" (or "our parent") -- the smiley face is the first person plural possessive pronoun, according to the first entry on page 396.
posted by nobody at 7:12 AM on April 21, 2016

It seems that Metafilter has answered the question on the blackboard with "Ask enough people if they recognize the symbol, and eventually someone will." Is there any better answer?
posted by Liesl at 7:31 AM on April 21, 2016

Also, the question wanted to know about its significance? It looks like that symbol is part of a constructed language, so by default it would be used...almost never. However, maybe it was part of something before that? Or maybe the significance of the language itself, or the way the language was constructed, is of interest?

However, the question isn't asking about linguistics; it's asking about mathematics, literature, and religion. Religion is easy: "our father" is the beginning of a famous Christian prayer. The other two?
posted by amtho at 7:53 AM on April 21, 2016

The answer to all three is actually "John Wilkins".

He was a founder of the Royal Society, and an advocate for tolerance of religious non-conformists following the restoration of the monarchy and re-formation of the Anglican Church.
posted by susiswimmer at 8:03 AM on April 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Wilkins and his quest to build a symbolic language to describe reality is heavily featured in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle novels, which also talk about the building of a "logic mill"/computer, Newton, Leibniz, and other intellectuals of the time. So it's possible your colleague reached it through that connection.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:51 AM on April 21, 2016

Since your question is "How would I identify...", I'd offer that one method of research would be to look in one of the many dictionaries of symbols. This is is a surprisingly wide genre of reference works - there are versions for art, religion, mathematics, etc.
posted by gyusan at 9:25 AM on April 21, 2016

So, I love this, especially solving the question in twenty minutes! But I don't think we can take credit if we used google-able words from Dave's Twitter. The symbolic dictionaries might be the best place to look, and I guess that goes alongside the idea of asking a reference librarian.

I'm still kind of attached to the answer I started with: ask Metafilter. It did, after all, work. :-)

Thanks so much!
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:51 AM on April 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

For the record, I would have gone to and used their search for: geometry asymmetric, open shape, curved lines, lines crossing which ... didn't pull this symbol up, but that's where I would have started.
posted by komara at 11:06 AM on April 21, 2016

I've also solved similar questions by uploading a photo of the symbol to Google image search and just going through a lot of results.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:34 AM on April 21, 2016

There are also dictionaries of graphical signs and symbols. I recall one at the reference desk of the library in which I used to work. Here's an online one. In the absence of AskMe, that's where I'd start looking.
posted by Miko at 12:37 PM on April 21, 2016

I don't think we can take credit if we used google-able words from Dave's Twitter

I think this is legitimate, actually. If, say, you were going to meet him, or follow up on a remark he made or a presentation in which you saw this symbol, then looking through his other work as a starting point is an excellent strategy. If you'd seen the symbol, for example, in a book, then it would make sense to find out what you could about the author through that author's social media/web articles, as a starting point.
posted by amtho at 6:19 PM on April 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

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