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Review of Liungman's Dictionary of Symbols
By Seth A. Maislin
  Liungman, Carl G.
Dictionary of Symbols
ABC-CLIO. 1991.
ISBN 0-87436-610-0
  I accidentally came across the Dictionary of Symbols, by Carl G. Liungman and published by ABC-CLIO in 1991 (ISBN 0-87436-610-0), a reference text whose dual purpose is to document symbology in Western human culture and to serve as a tool for those who work with ideograms. This 596-page volume reads more like an encyclopedia than like a dictionary, since in many cases historical information and anecdotes complement the definitions. In fact many symbols represented are thousands of years old, taken from popular cave drawings or as characters of ancient pictographic languages.
  If a Western or ancient symbol existed before the book's publication date, it is likely to appear in this book. (The book does not include characters of Asian alphabets.) Symbols range from the typographical to the abstract, from the iconographic to the metaphorical, from the simple to the complicated. Most of them are so complicated, in fact, that it's impossible for me to reproduce them here without drawing more heavily on this journal's publication budget. Still, if nothing else, all of them are fun to look at.
  Although I don't believe this is a reference that indexers are going to need, I think it's a fantastic demonstration of how to get around the language barrier that is so much a part of our indexing jobs.
  The book begins with 80 pages of introduction, defining most of the terminology and providing an appropriate sense of history in much the same an English dictionary introduces pronunciation and etymology before getting to the words. The next 454 pages comprise the meat of this book: hand-drawn symbols along the outside margins, with corresponding descriptions filling the wide columns closer to the binding. At the top of each page is the group number (described below). As in indexer, my first question was, "How is this book ordered?"
  There have been many discussions concerning the sorting of nonalphanumeric characters in my indexing experience, yet each of those characters has always had a language equivalent (and sometimes many). Consensus has been that the symbols should be sorted consistently, taking cues from the author's use and from the indexer's understanding of the audience's background. For example, the symbol # has at least four English equivalents, and choosing which is appropriate depends on the author and the audience: "hash mark" for computer users, "octothorpe" for print technicians, "sharp" for musicians, and, thanks to the modern telephony, "pound sign" for the rest of us. But suppose we were working with symbols with no English equivalent? For instance, I have yet to hear an alternative pronunciation for the glyph popularly known as "the artist formerly known as Prince"!
  Liungman organizes his dictionaries into 55 categories he calls "groups," with each group defined by its symmetry (single symmetric, multi-symmetric, asymmetric), closedness (open, closed, some combination of both), line straightness (straight only, soft only, some combination of both), and incidence of crossed lines (no crossings, at least one crossing). There are 54 combinations here; the 55th category comes from the single-symmetric open-and-closed soft-and-straight-lined crossing group, because he divides this special group into symbols with right-angled crossing lines only and symbols with non-right-angled crossing lines.
  To use only symbols I can either type or describe unambiguously, I have created this short table to demonstrate.
Symbol NameClassification According to Liungman
parenthesissingle-symmetric, soft, not crossing, open
ellipsismulti-symmetric, soft, not crossing, open
filled teardropsingle-symmetric, soft, not crossing, closed
quarter noteasymmetric, soft, crossing, open and closed
Olympics symbol (5 overlapping circles)single-symmetric, soft, crossing, closed
ancient Eurasian swastikaasymmetric, straight-lined, crossing, open

  Aware that even this ordering would be insufficient (or perhaps unintuitive) to the symbology layperson, the author includes three indexes to his dictionary. The first is a word index, which unfortunately seems quite lacking in vernacular. For example, I was unable to locate the terms "question mark" or "asterisk." I was also unable to find the word "pound," although both the hash mark and the British monetary symbol appear in the book. Even the word "sharp," which describes the same symbol and appears twice in the dictionary in reference to music-once even in boldface-is missing from the text index.
  The second index was my best friend in writing this review: the graphic index. This is a listing of all symbols in group order-and thus page order-but without the text. This index served as an easy way to browse all the symbols in the book. Each symbol in this index was paired with its dictionary page number, as well as page numbers from the introduction or for related symbols elsewhere in the dictionary. Because I did not have time to internalize the author's organization scheme in time for this review, I was happy to quickly browse the symbols in any order. Had I learned to apply the four descriptive categories quickly, however, this index would have served little purpose, since it was simply a shorter, page-order re-listing of dictionary items.
  The third index, the Graphic Search Index, begins with a one-page glossary of the descriptive terms, with examples. On this page you can see examples of each symmetry type, or illustrations of open and closed elements. Following these definitions is a "search table," which lists each of the 54 (+1) permutations in a table with three levels of rows, such that each of the groups belongs to its own table cell. In this way you can match your four descriptive characteristics with the headings for a row, sub-row, sub-sub-row, and column combination, and thus learn the group number. With this information, the reader can scan the headers of the dictionary to find the symbol.
  Finally, similar to a short appendix, the author concludes with seven short helpful hints to the reader who is still unable to crack the book's code.
  As an example of sorting symbols without language equivalents, I believe the author has accomplished quite a feat by developing the descriptive characteristics necessary to group 1,500 symbols into 55 categories. As an indexer and information architect, I am intrigued by these choices and feel better prepared to face such a daunting task should one ever come my way. Nevertheless, the author fails to sort in any recognizable pattern the symbols within these groups. I might guess that the symbols become "more complicated" as each group's list continues; in Japanese kanji dictionaries, for example, the characters are ordered by stroke count. But I do not feel that author is consistent here, and that subjectivity prevails.
  After reading Liungman's dictionary, I realize that even the theory of indexing suffers a language barrier.

Copyright 1999 Seth A. Maislin


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