I am looking for writings in philosophy, semiotics, or psychology that deal with the shifts and ultimately the inversion of practical meaning in symbols. This would be something like Orwell's concept of doublespeak or Jung's references to Heraclitus and enantiodromia.

Let me give an example of what I'm thinking about. In the Roman Empire, the cross was a symbol of public execution and violent bodily domination. Under Christianity it inverts into a symbol of hope, life, and disembodied liberation. Then, in the political culture of the Ku Klux Klan, it again inverts back into a symbol of violent domination and public execution.

In other words, a "symbol" that abstractly unifies ("throws together") a society begins to undergo a doubled meaning or diabolism ("throwing apart"), forming a contradiction and generating a social schism. This is a bit like a Hegelian dialectic in reverse. I imagine there must be some well-known works on such phenomena, but I'm not sure what to call it or how to search for it.

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    Obvs. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika Aug 19, 2022 at 22:12
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    semiotics=sem+iot+ics, meaning carrying a (little) iota of semantics, thus the syntactic symbol itself could simply always adapt to polysemy meanings... Aug 19, 2022 at 22:40
  • Thanks, both. These are good feedbacks. Still trying to clarify to myself what I'm looking for here. We know that signs can drift. Maybe I'm looking for something more like a scientific explanation of how. Aug 20, 2022 at 4:00
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    A history of the pentagram would be a good source example. Most cultures use it and its meaning can invert and vary in surprising ways.
    – nwr
    Aug 20, 2022 at 4:59

2 Answers 2


In linguistics, a reclaimed or reappropriated word is a word previously used as a perjorative against some group X and now used as a signifier of in group status (amongst other things). If you are American, one particular word comes to mind.

In linguistics more generally, the notion of semantic change captures a wide variety of such phenomena: whereas "sick"'s original meaning qua adjective was "sickening", it has now broadened out to mean roughly "very cool". And you can find many such examples.

Unfortunately, I am not too well versed in semiotics. But there are many such linguistic examples.

  • This question is a reference request. Where are your references?
    – J D
    Aug 19, 2022 at 19:16
  • Thank you. See Robin 2014, as well as Croom 2011 on slurs. For semantic change, Blank has a large body of work.
    – emesupap
    Aug 19, 2022 at 19:18
  • Thanks, I'll check that. That is related, but not quite what I'm getting at. Admittedly, I need to sharpen the whole idea myself. It could also be related to irony, which can endow linguistic and visual signs with a double meaning. Again, I'm thinking of signs or symbols that convey a broad meaning, then divide into two distinct or antagonistic meanings to different social groups. Looking for terms or references that will send me in right direction. Aug 19, 2022 at 21:01

Inversion in meaning that happens as an organic process is not at all like Orwell's doublespeak. The resemblence is very superficial. They are often historically contingent on many factors. I don't think that there is a theory of such.

Several recent examples come to mind which are of a piece. The way gay culture re-appropriated the term "queer" from a term of abuse to something they could be proud of. Similarly for the term "black" - for example, there is the slogan:

black and beautiful

And I've heard of similar with the term "nerd" and "geek". These may not quite be what you are looking for as the words haven't changed meaning per se. They mean the same thing but are more positively valued. But I think that one can argue that value attached to a word is part of its meaning. So perhaps, yes, they are examples.

This inversion in value were the outcome of social movements and campaigns that were egalitarian at heart. Some rooted in Christianity, others in Marxism and Liberalism.

These inversions are nothing like Orwell's double speak as the intentions are very different. The former is to emancipate an oppressed or victimised group whereas the latter is to subjugate and oppress a whole society. As Orwell points out, and which Arendt affirms, the intention of doublespeak is to destroy meaning by breaking down simple categories of truth that have a straightforward relation to reality that all rational brings can assent to. It is a mental totalitarianism that bends truth to mere caprice of the Master, in Orwells term, Big Brother. Its this mental totalitarianism that Arendt states was the signal difference between the totalitarianisms of the 20C and other despised tyrannical regimes.

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    The Department of Defence & defence contractors is an inversion, & literally exactly like Doublespeak. One of the motivations of inversion is to hide truths. It was about the idea of linguistic determinism, & simplifying & limiting the society by doing the same to the language. Not mere caprice, it was highly systematic & motivated. Theocratic totalitarianisms have had exactly the same tyranny over thoughts in former times.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 21, 2022 at 0:08
  • Perhaps phrases (e.g. Arbeit macht frei, or Fake news) are not the best examples. I fully admit I'm kind of groping here to describe or to make more precise a concept that may have many similar manifestations. But Orwellian doublespeak is closer to what I mean by an unconscious or partially conscious "inverted meaning" with social ramifications than a reappropriated phrase like "queer." I think the Cross and "Fake News" i.e. "Untrue Facts" bifurcate belief systems and are closer to what I had in mind. Aug 21, 2022 at 1:59
  • @CriglCragl: No, the primary purpose of military forces are defence otherwise we would be embroiled in perpetual war and this is not the case. Of course there are pathological cases like Hitler and the Interhamwe, but they are exactly that - pathological cases. Aug 21, 2022 at 2:13
  • @CriglCragl: Again that is a simplification of what totalitarianism is about. As Arendt pointed out it was a political regime that had no precedent. Confusing it with mere tyranny or authoritarianism is simply obfuscating this issue. I recommend reading her book, On the Origins of Totalitarianism and Orwell's 1984 to see the parallels between the two. Aug 21, 2022 at 2:18
  • @NelsonAlexander: Hannah Arendt was not saying Orwellian Doublespeak and the evisceration of meaning was "unconscious" but a deliberate policy by the Nazi and Stalinist propaganda machine to spiritually - or mentally, if you find that word offensive - reduce them to zombies and puppets. It was a policy to eliminate them as thinking and acting political subjects. If thats the kind of inversion in meaning you are looking for then theres's plenty of material to look at - historians and others have written plenty about those two regimes. Aug 21, 2022 at 2:25

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