Origin and Meaning of Peace Symbol

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What is the peace symbol? When and why was it created? What did it originally mean? How is it different from a peace sign?

The peace symbol, commonly seen during America's anti-war movements in the 1960s, is the creation of artist and engineer Gerald Holtom. He designed the symbol in February 1958 as a logo for the British nuclear disarmament movement. It was first used to represent a march from London's Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston that took place in April of the same year.

Holtom's peace symbol design is based on a flag semaphore representation of the letters "N" and "D" (the first letter of the words "Nuclear Disarmament") placed on top of each other. This type of semaphore communication uses the positioning of flags (and other objects) to convey messages at a distance. The system, popular on ships during the 19th century, is still in use today.

The nuclear disarmament logo was first widely adopted in the 1960s as a symbol of the counter-culture and anti-war movements especially in the United States. Its widespread use was aided by the fact that it was not copyrighted and its use was not restricted by its creator. A couple of attempts, in 1970, to register the peace symbol as a corporate trademark were rejected by the U.S. Patent Office.

Semaphore letters N and D used to create Peace Symbol
Semaphore letters N and D

Differences

Technically speaking, the peace symbol is different from the peace sign. The former is a logo, created in 1958, that took its design inspiration from a flag signaling system. The latter, however, is a hand gesture that began to become popular in 1941. It is formed by making the letter "V" by spreading one's index and middle fingers while the palm side of the hand is facing other people. It should be noted, however, that making this gesture with the BACK of one's hand facing others is considered vulgar or obscene by some people.

The "V for Victory" hand-based sign gained credibility and acceptance during World War II when the allies, most notably British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, began to use the symbol.

This hand gesture was later adopted by anti-war movements and the hippie culture of the 60s, as well as notable leaders like President Richard Nixon. While political and other leaders continued to use the sign to convey triumph or victory, it was adapted by others to represent peace.

Given the above, for all modern practical purposes, the phases "peace symbol" and "peace sign" are used interchangeably to denote both the nuclear disarmament logo and the "V" shaped hand gesture.

Did you know . . .

Holtom's logo was errorneously believed to have taken its inspiration from a bird's foot (e.g. dove, chicken) drawn within a circle.

According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, the dove was the first bird employed for symbolic purposes by Christians. It appears in numerous epitaphs found in the Roman catacombs. Its use as the earliest "peace symbol" is derived from its role in determining when Noah could safely leave the Ark (Genesis 8:8 - 12). Doves are also used as a sign of God's Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16, John 1:32).

List of terms in
Dictionary of Biblical Words

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