Examples of Iconicity in Everyday Life

, Staff Writer
Updated November 24, 2020
iconicity example winding road sign
    winding road ahead sign
    MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski / Getty
    Used under Getty Images license

An icon is a visual representation of something else. An icon can represent a person, place, object, idea, business, group of people, or another noun. The word iconicity refers to the similarity between a symbol and what it stands for. Icons have iconicity if they are similar in some way to what they represent. Not all iconicity is visual in nature. Linguistic symbols, such as sounds and sign language, can also have iconicity.

Icons and Iconicity

An icon can be a visual image such as a logo, or an icon can be a person who represents an idea or style. The form of an icon can suggest its meaning. It might simply be a shorter way of communicating something, such as a numerical representation of a written out number or a shorthand symbol. When symbols do not have iconicity, that means they are arbitrary, rather than being similar to what they represent.


Everyday Examples of Iconicity

Any symbol that stands for something else can have iconicity. If the symbol is similar in some way to its meaning, it has iconicity. In a case where there is not inherent similarity between a symbol and what it means, that symbol would be described as arbitrary.


Visual elements, such as company logos and signage, often have iconicity.

  • A road sign picturing a squiggly line represents the message that the road ahead is a winding one.
  • A road sign showing an image of a deer or other animal communicates the message that those animals may be on the road.
  • Emoji faces and other symbols used in electronic communication are icons that use pictures to convey emotions or information.
  • The fact that you click a button with a line drawing of a printer on it to print a document is an example of iconicity.
  • A picture of an apple is a representation of the Apple Corporation.
  • A bull stock market is represented by the Wall Street bull.
  • The golden arches, which are similar to a capital M, are a representation of the McDonald’s fast food chain.
  • The red target symbol, which is a circle in the shape of a target, is a visual representations of the retail store Target.
  • A picture of a cup of coffee with steam rising from the top represents a hot cup of coffee.
  • A sign outside of a restroom showing a picture of a man or a woman shows which restroom is for men and which one is for women.
  • A restroom sign that shows both men and women indicates that the space is gender neutral.
  • A person’s initials symbolize the name of a person without writing out that name; JFK symbolizes the person of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
  • Some professions can be represented by visual symbols indicative of what people do in that job. For example, a stethoscope can symbolize a doctor.

Linguistic Iconicity

When considering iconicity, linguistics examples should definitely be included. These include non-pictorial symbols that are used to convey meaning.

  • Texting abbreviations and acronyms are examples of iconicity. This is also true with email abbreviations.
  • Common acronyms also represent iconicity. There are many examples of acronyms.
  • Abbreviations used in everyday language are acronyms. So are specialized examples, such as business word abbreviations.
  • Saying "shhhh" in a hushed tone is an example of linguistic iconicity instructing someone to lower his or her voice.
  • The number 1791 is a representation of the year seventeen hundred ninety-one.
  • Writing '20 instead of 2020 represents linguistic iconicity.
  • In writing, the three-dot ellipses symbol "…" can be used to represent a person pausing or trailing off when speaking.
  • "Chirp" is an onomatopoeia word, meaning that it is a word that represents the sound it describes — in this case, the sound a bird makes when it chirps.
  • In American sign language, the word "you" is represented by pointing to the person being spoken to. The hand sign indicates the meaning of the word.
  • In American Sign Language, signs relating to emotions, including angry, happy and feel, are made on the chest, near the heart.
  • In American Sign Language, signs relating to the way we think, such as understand, know and think, are made on the head.
  • Making a motion in front of your lips as if you were turning a key to lock them as a way of indicating to someone not to speak is iconicity.
  • Patting an empty chair to indicate to someone that the seat is available for them to sit in is an example of iconicity.

Arbitrary vs. Iconicity

When considering whether a symbol has iconicity or is arbitrary, the key is to determine if the link between the symbol and the meaning is that they are truly similar.

Logo Example

A logo can be very recognizable and still be arbitrary. The fact that you see a logo and instantly know the brand does not mean that the logo has iconicity.

  • The Nike swoosh logo is highly recognized. People see that swoosh and immediately think Nike. However, that link isn't based on the similarity between the visual element and the brand or its products. It's the result of outstanding branding. If its logo showed an athletic shoe or athlete, then the it would have iconicity.
  • On the other hand, Under Amour, another company that makes athletic apparel, does have a logo with iconicity. It is a visual depiction of UA in a creative way. Since UA is an abbreviation the company's name, there is a clear similarity between the icon (the logo) and the company's name.

Arbitrary Nature of Language

Most language is arbitrary. Think about Shakespeare's famous line, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Juliet would still be who she is if her parents had named her Martha. A rose would still be a rose if the word for that specific type of flower was something entirely different.

Now that you have a good understanding of what iconicity is, turn your attention to some related concepts. Start by exploring some examples of symbolism. After that, discover some interesting examples of iconography.