Percent Sign Wins "Symbol of the Year" Pilot Vote

Image of a percent sign

Image of a percent sign

Symbolic Systems Program affiliates have chosen the percent sign ("%") as the Symbol of the Year for 2012, in a first-ever, pilot vote designed to test whether such a vote should become an annual tradition. The percent sign was nominated by program alumnus Louis Eisenberg (Class of 2003).

The citation reads: "From continued protests about 'the 99%' and 'the 1%', to Mitt Romney's '47%' remark, to the 'fiscal cliff' debate, the percent sign appeared throughout 2012 on banners and in headlines. Its presence was a constant reminder that income/wealth distribution and tax brackets had become the main focus of U.S. politics."

Other Notable Symbols of 2012 that won substantial support in the balloting were:

the Piedra del Sol, as a stand-in for the Mayan calendar

In 2012, images based on this famous Aztec or Mexica (not Mayan) artifact were widely but apocryphally used to represent the Mayan calendar, in a web of celebration, confusion, and anxiety surrounding the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar’s cyclic turning on December 21st. - Nominated by Peter Westen ('00) and Brandon Weiss ('03)

CERN - the European Organization for Nuclear Research

CERN is a symbol of European unity and scientific achievement, a status that has been enhanced by recent discoveries at CERN’s new Large Hadron Collider. In July 2012, LHC experiments showed evidence for the Higgs boson (symbol: H0), possibly confirming a key component in the Standard Model of particle physics. - Nominated by Max Bodoia ('14)

the gun

Gun massacres in Colorado and Connecticut, and many other shootings throughout the year, focused public attention in the U.S. on guns as never before. The gun, especially the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, symbolized a violent society, the Second Amendment, and the often emotional policy debates surrounding gun control. - Nominated by Alexander Muller ('10), James Kung ('04), and Aaron Cohen ('92)

the euro sign

The euro sign sculpture outside ECB headquarters in Frankfurt, frequently used by media as a symbol of one of 2012's biggest ongoing stories, faced an uncertain future, much like the euro itself. The latter's prospects, amidst debt crises in Greece and other Euro-zone countries, dominated financial news throughout the year. - Nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director and Lecturer)

The five recognized symbols were chosen from 21 nominations submitted between December 14th and 22nd, with voting taking place December 24th through January 2nd. Nominations appeared on the ballot in the words of the nominators, without endorsement of any particular nomination from the program. Eighty-three alumni/ae, students, faculty, and staff affiliated with the Program cast ballots in a system that allowed each voter to say "Y" or "N", or to abstain, on any nomination. When the results were verified, public web pages were prepared for the winning symbol as well as the four other symbols that received more Y's than N's.

Symbolic Systems' Associate Director Todd Davies initiated the nomination and voting process as an experiment, after the idea had gotten favorable reactions from recent student Advising Fellows. All of the program's alums, current students, and faculty/staff were eliglbie to vote. The ballot stated that the purpose of the vote was "to recognize the important role that symbols play in our world" ("as affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program").

The idea of a "Symbol of the Year" was inspired by the many annual "of the year" designations and awards that are put out by various organizations, especially the American Dialect Society's annual "Word of the Year" vote. Creating such recognition for symbols was seen as a good match for Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program, which focuses on human and computational systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information. Although program administrators are not aware of any other annual "Symbol of the Year" designations, the author Lindy West playfully invoked the idea a few years ago, when she wrote that the Twitter hashtag ("#") was the "Symbol of the Year" for 2010. "Lindy West's piece was very much in the spirit we are looking for," Davies said. "When I thought about it, I realized you could come up with an interesting symbol worthy of the designation every year. So we decided to try this out as an experiment, and we'll see where it goes in the future."

For "Criteria", the ballot stated the following:

"The Symbol of the Year need not be new to this year [2012], but should have achieved widespread cultural importance during the year. A symbol is both used and understood to represent a concept, object, location, event, or linguistic unit. Types of symbols include the following:

  • a flag or emblem (e.g. the Olympic flag, the red AIDS awareness ribbon)
  • a grapheme or written character (e.g. the "+" sign, the lowercase "e")
  • a hand signal or gesture (e.g. the "OK" sign, the salute)
  • an iconic object or being (e.g. the Statue of Liberty, the black cat)
  • an ideogram (e.g. the peace symbol, the caduceus symbol of commerce)
  • a logo (e.g. the Red Cross logo, the MTV logo)
  • a pictogram (e.g. the International Symbol of Access, the Universal Recycling Symbol)
  • a screen icon (e.g. the magnifying glass/search icon, the trash icon)
  • an auditory sign (e.g. the train whistle, the Intel bongs)
  • a tactile symbol (e.g. a braille character, a TSBVI Standard Tactile Symbol)
  • a symbolic event or action (e.g. the lighting of a candle, the sun setting)
  • an iconic photograph or image (e.g. the Migrant Mother, the Guerrillero Heroico)"

Davies was pleased that the five recognized symbols displayed a diversity of types. They included two written characters, an excavated stone carving, an international organization, and a type of weapon. "Lots of things can be symbols," said Davies, "but relatively few things actually are. Being a symbol is an acquired status, that gets established through use. Symbols can obviously become notable because the things they represent are notable. But we wanted to draw attention to the signficance that symbols themselves have, as symbols, beyond what they represent, and to get ourselves and others thinking about the role they play in contemporary life."

The vote was aimed at complementing, and not duplicating, efforts such as the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. "In a nice duality," noted Davies, "the ADS this year chose a word for a symbol ('hashtag'), while we chose a symbol for a word ('%'). The fact that the 2012 Word of the Year refers to a typographical symbol is one example of how important symbols have become in our increasingly digital world."

The ballot included an Advisory Vote that asked, "Should we do a Symbol of the Year vote every year?" Voters overwhelmingly said "yes", but the program staff and faculty will need to evaluate whether this is something the Program can and should commit to doing annually.

Update: Our Symbol of the Year pilot vote was discussed by Keith Devlin (Senior Researcher at the Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute, H-STAR), also known as "The Math Guy", on a segment of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, January 12th.