Our society is brimming with symbols. We can’t walk down the street without them screaming at us from every traffic sign, billboard, window, and T-shirt. There’s a good reason for that—they work.
These creative bits of visual shorthand are great for quickly letting the world know where we stand on an issue or just for stirring up a particular feeling. However, given how powerful they are, it’s unsettling how little we know about them.
For all we know, they could mean the exact opposite of what we’ve been led to believe. And for these 10 symbols at least, that’s precisely the case.
10 Uncle Sam
When it comes to symbols of American patriotism, the bald eagle and the Statue of Liberty are great but they still fall far short of good old Uncle Sam. For as long as anyone can remember, this stone-faced, flag-clad gent has stood as a representation of American pride as well as the country itself.
But rewind a few centuries, and you would likely get a patriotic punch in the face for mentioning the name Uncle Sam in the presence of a proud American. Created during the 1830s, the famous cartoon was based upon “Uncle Sam” Wilson, a real-life man who delivered food to American troops during the War of 1812.
However, despite the heroics of his namesake, the “Uncle Sam” caricature was originally drawn for one very specific reason: to insult the United States government. Countless political cartoons from his early life use him to mock everything from the country’s warlike nature to rampant political corruption—everyone’s favorite uncle was essentially the entire world’s punching bag.
During the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, however, people realized how alike the two looked and opinion toward the derisive symbol began to shift. Lincoln’s popularity ended up completely flipping Uncle Sam’s reputation, leaving us with a new and utterly confusing mascot.
9 The Skinhead Look
Shaved heads, military boots, and plenty of swastika tattoos are the defining symbols of possibly the most hateful subculture in existence: the skinheads. For decades, these uber-racists have made the world just a little bit worse for anyone daring to be a different color. You might assume that these fascists follow in the footsteps of Hitler or the KKK, but you would be laughably incorrect.
It turns out that the skinhead lifestyle has its roots in the decidedly less evil countercultures of late ’60s England. Influenced by the Mods—a group of style conscious minimalists—and Jamaican music culture, the group pieced itself together with elements of both—namely shaven heads and a passion for black musicians.
That’s right, one of the most racist clubs in history originally came together over their love for Bob Marley, making black skinheads a common sight in the group’s early years.
Unfortunately, though, skinhead culture eventually took a darker path, alienating members of different races and developing an interest in Nazi imagery. Today, the iconic skinhead style is nothing but a symbol of hateful intolerance.
8 The ‘Shaka’
You may not recognize the name. But if you’ve ever been to Hawaii or seen a movie about surfing, you’ve probably seen this distinctive hand gesture. Curl the middle fingers, extend the thumb and pinky, wag them back and forth, and you’ve got yourself a shaka. It is basically a way to let the world know how laid-back you are, and it is also an endorsement of peace and goodwill.
According to Hawaiians, though, the symbol is far from peaceful. Originating in the early 20th century, the gesture was invented solely to mock a man who had suffered a horrifying industrial accident.
Hamana Kalili was his name, and he made his living working in the Kahuku Sugar Mill until his hand got caught in a sugarcane press. He lost the three middle fingers of his right hand and was no longer able to work. So he got a job guarding the train that delivered cane to the factory.
It was a lucky break, or at least it would have been if not for the local kids. They would often jump on the trains mid-trip to ride from town to town, and Kalili’s job was to stop these potentially suicidal stunts. So the resentful teens invented the shaka to mock their fingerless nemesis and silently signal each other when he was nearby.
7 Guy Fawkes
Thanks to the film V for Vendetta and the rising tide of Internet activism, the grinning face of 17th-century English revolutionary Guy Fawkes has become a symbol of freedom from “the man.”
Executed in 1606 for attempting to bring down England’s government by blowing up Parliament, Fawkes has become a sort of folk hero to anyone with a grudge against the powers that be. In fact, stylized masks bearing his image are frequently worn by protesters.
Yet despite his reputation for toppling religious regimes, Fawkes was actually involved in a brutal scheme to install one. Fawkes’s famous conspiracy to shatter the English government—the Gunpowder Plot—wasn’t his at all. The plan had been concocted by several disgruntled Catholics looking to murder the Protestant royal family and return Catholic rule to England.
Catholicism had only recently been given the boot and for good reason: widespread violence against non-Catholics. A far cry from the grand antiestablishment gesture we like to imagine, the real Fawkes’s famous plot was an attempt to reestablish a system of bloody religious persecution.
6 The Heart
The ultimate symbol of innocent love and affection, the heart has been used for centuries by romantics looking to express themselves. This Valentine’s Day staple is so common that it is generally lumped in with circles and squares as a basic shape.
Obviously, though, the odd pink shape looks nothing like the organ throbbing away in your chest, leading to many theories about where the symbol actually originated.
Ancient Rome gives us the most likely explanation, and it’s not nearly as cutesy as you might expect. Much like their architecture and military strategies, Rome’s contraceptive techniques were incredibly advanced.
By using a medicinal herb called silphium, the ancients could get as nasty as they wanted without fear of unwanted pregnancy. In a society renowned for extravagant orgies, the herb was popular indeed. In fact, it was eventually eaten into extinction by horny Roman citizens.
The plant’s heart-shaped seedpods even made their way onto Roman currency. Now, millennia later, we still use their shape to symbolize romance—albeit an utterly different variety. What was once a symbol of casual sex has become something that schoolkids exchange on Valentine’s Day.
5 Che Guevara
Even if you aren’t familiar with his name, you have probably seen Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s face staring you down from a poster or T-shirt at some point. This Argentinian guerrilla leader played a prominent role in the Cuban Revolution, and his image has since become shorthand for open-mindedness and freedom from oppression.
Yet ironically, after his time in Cuba, Guevara spent quite a bit of time being the most oppressive, racist, sexist tyrant on Earth. After leading a group of Cuban mercenaries to the Congo in an attempt to lead a people’s revolution, he began showing his true colors.
His attacks against government forces failed again and again, and he would often vent his frustrations on his men. Guevara’s soldiers would go on to tell of his violent temper and stubbornness. He expected nothing short of complete silent obedience. He would accuse troops he considered lazy of “acting like women,” and he treated his African troops with unfairness that bordered on racism.
But most surprising was his attitude toward freedom. Most of his men had been coerced into joining his planned African revolution and had no clue as to why they were even there. Bizarrely, he expected his fellow “freedom” fighters to simply shut their mouths and fall in line.
4 The Inverted Cross
Over the years, death metal bands, horror movies, and Goth culture have taught us that no symbol embodies darkness and evil more than the inverted cross. A simple crucifix turned upside down, this emblem is typically used by anyone attempting to insult traditional religion. It sort of makes sense—a “backward” religious symbol equals “anti-religion,” right?
Maybe to some but not to well-read members of an obscure little group known as the entire Christian faith. According to Christian teachings, when Saint Peter was crucified, he requested an upside-down cross. Basically, this was a sign of his humility because he felt that he wasn’t holy enough to die in the same way as Jesus.
That being the case, many Christian subgroups not only see the inverted cross as a holy symbol but also as being even more meaningful than the “proper” version. The Pope himself even has a giant upside-down crucifix carved into the back of his throne. Sort of makes it hard to take all those death metal album covers seriously, doesn’t it?
3 The Rabbit’s Foot
The foot of a rabbit is right up there with four-leaf clovers and heads-up pennies as a symbol of good fortune. For centuries, the severed foot of this cuddly woodland creature has inexplicably been used to attract luck. It’s a strange custom to be sure, but it’s actually a lot tamer than it used to be.
Centuries ago, making a rabbit’s foot charm involved a lot of gruesome work and tons of shady folklore. It was commonly believed that witches would take the form of rabbits to subtly travel and work their evil magic. Therefore, catching one of these transfigured witches and claiming her foot was said to give the bearer her dark power.
But that wasn’t all. To maximize the effectiveness of the gory trinket, it had to be claimed in a graveyard on a rainy Friday the 13th . . . while the animal was still alive.
Over time, the “dark magic” elements fell away. All anyone remembered was that a rabbit’s feet were supposed to be somehow mystical. Now, the superstitious among us find themselves rubbing “evil” talismans in hopes of scoring that big promotion.
2 The Jesus Fish
Ever been stuck in traffic? It’s great, isn’t it? You really get to know your fellow commuters. That guy would rather be fishing, that woman’s kid is an honor student, and all those people love Jesus. You know all this because of the graffiti plastered on their bumpers, a colorful tangle of stickers which often includes a small, innocuous fish.
This fish, or ichthus, is an extremely popular symbol of the Christian faith and has been since the religion’s infancy. Fans of the symbol claim that it represents the many references to fish found in the Bible.
But the truth is a little stranger and a lot less appropriate for Sunday school: It is a vagina. Specifically, the vagina of a pagan deity called the Great Mother. In the ancient world, this goddess was worshiped widely, with the image of her genitals—the ichthus—representing fertility.
However, once Christianity hit the Roman Empire, the extremely popular symbol was taken over by the growing faith. The sexual implications were simply swept under the carpet, and new “origins” were cooked up to satisfy the pious public. Nearly overnight, the image of a gaping vagina earned a place in church forever.
1 The Swastika
There is no more instantly recognizable or widely loathed symbol than the swastika. The legendarily evil actions of the Nazi Party have ensured that their menacing mark will be despised for centuries to come. But it turns out that the extremely long list of Nazi Germany’s victims includes the swastika itself.
When famed German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ancient city of Troy in 1871, he discovered something else as well. Among the many curiosities of the lost city was a strange symbol which seemed to indicate good fortune: the spindle-whorl, or swastika.
It could be found on countless artifacts dating back thousands of years before the city itself. He was fascinated by the image, and his travels led him to find it in several other ruins the world over.
His discoveries made him an international celebrity, and the world soon grew to share his obsession with the symbol. In the early 20th century, the swastika could be found on everything from Coca-Cola bottles to American military gear.
It wasn’t until 1920 that the growing Nazi Party officially adopted the image, claiming that it represented the ancient roots of their “master race.” In the years to follow, a symbol which had ushered in good luck for millennia was used to justify the most horrific mass slaughter in history.