Symbols that have different or no meaning in various cutures

This thread was sparked by seeing a discussion on livejournal. An English-speaking author was writing a story about a little Russian girl named Svetlana, and asked what the Russian word for “firefly” would be – because Svetlana means “light”, the author wanted her character’s grandfather to nickname her Firefly. A Russian poster responded, saying that in Russian culture this scenario would be unlikely, as insects aren’t associated with anything sweet or romantic in Russia. A Russian grandfather wouldn’t go from Svetlana = light = firefly, he’d go Svetlana = light = “my little light”.

I found this intriguing. Not so long ago, I had mentioned to a Chinese speaker that my middle name means “wolf”, and asked if there’s an equivalent name in Chinese. His response was wolves in Chinese culture have a negative connotation and therefore parents wouldn’t give their child a name with such a meaning. Whereas in some European cultures, wolf = free, wild, devoted to a pack, powerful, no such symbolism is connected with the concept of wolf in Chinese culture, or at least not in a positive way.

Can anyone give me more examples of objects or animals commonly used for symbolism, but which have contrary or nonexistent symbolism in other cultures?

Never mind: failed the “commonly used” test.

Actually, “svetlyachok” - “firefly” in Russian does not have a negative connotation and could conceivably be a term of endearment.

As for the culture differences - various Islamic cultures mostly consider dogs to be unclean and having dogs as pets is extremely rare in such cultures. From my experience, weirdly enough, dogs reciprocate the dislike.

I think I have heard that owls, symbols of wisdom in European culture, are regarded as particularly stupid birds in China.

They’re right. :smiley:

Off the top of my head and in no particular order, I can think of several animals that symbolize different things in different cultures:
Bat, cattle, crane/stork, swine, cat, vulture, serpent, turtle/tortoise, frog, rat.

Flowers can symbolize different things across cultures. Probably gemstones as well.

The swastika is an obvious example. It symbolizes various things elsewhere, but in the West it’s come to mean Nazism and nothing else.

To the point where, when it appears on an old Spanish church, the descriptions are very careful to call it a “solar cross” and not a “swastika”. In pre-1940s descriptions both terms are used interchangeably.

The same symbol can have different meanings within the same culture, depending on who you ask. The lauburu (“four-heads”) is, depending on your sources, a symbol of the Basque people, a symbol of Basque unity, a symbol of Basque independentism or a symbol of the fact that half the Basque have been at the other half’s throats (with or without the aiding and abetting of “outsiders”) ever since the dawn of history.
The wolf? In general, Spanish culture thinks of them as The Big Bad Wolf of fairy tales and legends, but it’s also a relatively common heraldic symbol; Ochoa (meaning wolf) is probably the most common Basque lastname. In Catalonia you get Llops, in Galicia and Portugal you get Lobos, and in the-rest-of-the-Peninsula you get Lope and López (any Spanish-speaking Lobo you meet got the lastname from Galicia or Portugal, most commonly Portugal).

Isn’t Wolf/e and other variants a common surname…almost everywhere? Definitely so in Eastern Europe and those who descended from German or Polish immigrants.

I don’t think too many in the U.S. name their kid ‘Wolf’ anymore, but Zev is a first name in Hebrew (though probably not too common) and Wolf Blitzer (aka Zev Barak) come to mind.

I wonder about the thumbs up gesture?

Not sure of veracity of this cite site.


I’ve had this on my Amazon wishlist for a while.

I grew up in a small time and there was a Punjabi family a few houses away from us. It really confused people when the mother painted swastikas over her sidewalk for Divali. They kept having cops show up at their house because people thought they were a victime of a hate crime.

In China, bats are a fairly pleasant, positive symbol. One flying into your home, for example, is thought to bring good luck. It’s pretty common for things like shopping bags to have festive bats on them. When they held the Olympic, there was a campaign to cut down on the bat-symbols in order not to freak out the foreigners.

In fact, China has a lot of unexpected symbols. You can easily break up a friendship by buying someone a watch or a nice pocketknife (clocks symbolize death, knives show a wish to cut off the friendship). If you give your girlfriend a bunch of white daisy’s, she’d probably be baffled and offended (white flowers are for funerals). And never, ever, wear a green hat (the symbol of a cuckold)!

The knife thing is traditional in European folklore as well. One common way of offsetting it is to ask for a penny or other token amount of money in return, so you’re selling technically rather than giving.

Same in Valencia, whose coat of arms has a bat on top (bigger for Valencia CF than for the city). There’s a bunch of legends about where the bat comes from, all of the linked to the siege which eventually led to the city’s conquest by the troops of James I of Aragon.

Makes sense: Valencia is in a swamp, there’s mosquitoes, bats eat mosquitoes.

Wolf (Ze’ev) is still fairly common in Israel, as are other animal names like Lion (Aryeh), Bear (Dov), Sparrow (Dror), Deer (Eyal), Gazelle (Zvi) and Fawn (Ofer) - and those are just the boys’ names.

Didn’t dragons have rather different images in European and Chinese cultures?

If our baby had been a boy, there’s a good chance she’d have been named Ze’ev (spelling changed to Zev for the convenience of English speakers).

One of the many iterations of Power Rangers had animal-themed Zords. I remember being a little puzzed that the frog was chosen as a symbol of wisdom. I presume that frogs are considered wise creatures in Japan. In Western culture, they tend to be thought of as fairly dumb.

Yes. European dragons are serpent-like, associated with the Devil, and always on a violent rampage.

Chinese dragons are generally benevolent water gods, controlling things like the weather or rivers and things of that nature. In the past, dragons were always the symbols of the Emperor, and I’ve heard that specifically, the 5 taloned ones were reserved only for the Emperor. Everyone else had to use 4 taloned ones or risk being arrested.

I came across a subtle example of this recently in the Facebook user interface.

Facebook crowdsources place data and translations for strings in its user interface from ist user base. In certain dialogs there is a provision for the user to vote whether e.g. a suggestion for the name of a place, or a suggestion for a translation is correct or not.

The site uses buttons with a check/tick mark (✓) for “vote for correct” and a cross mark (x) for “vote for incorrect”, but without explaining the meaning of the buttons as apparently they are considered obvious.

Only, e.g. here in Germany it is not obvious - the check mark does carry a meaning of ‘correct’ but the x does not to my knowledge carry a meaning of ‘incorrect’. In a form, putting a ✓ or an x into a box means the same thing: ‘yes/this applies’.