Character (symbol)

A character (from the Greek χαρακτήρ[1] "engraved or stamped mark" on coins or seals, "branding mark, symbol"[2]) is a sign or symbol.

A χαρακτήρ is thus an "engraver", originally in the sense of a craftsman, but then also used for a tool used for engraving, and for a stamp for minting coins. From the stamp, the meaning was extended to the stamp impression, Plato using the noun in the sense of "engraved mark". In Plutarch, the word could refer to a figure or letter, Lucian uses it of hieroglyphs as opposed to Greek grammata (Herm. 44)

Metaphorically, it could refer to a distinctive mark, Herodotus (1.57) using it of


The word was used in the sense of letter or grapheme by William Caxton, referring to the Phoenician alphabet, The Fenyces were the fyrst inuentours of caracteris dyfferencing that one fro that other, of whiche were fourmed lettres for to write (Eneydos 6.25). As in Greek, the word was used especially for foreign or mysterious graphemes (such as Chinese, Syriac, or Runic ones) as opposed to the familiar letters; in particular of shorthand (in David Copperfield (chapter 38) sarcastically of shorthand, "a procession of new horrors, called arbitrary characters; the most despotic characters I have ever known"), and since 1949 in computing (see character (computing).

As a collective noun, the word can refer to writing or printing in general (Shakespeare's sonnet nr. 59: Since minde at first in carrecter was done, viz. "since thought was first put in writing").

Esotericism and magic

Further information: Diabolical signature

The word in Renaissance magic came to refer to any astrological, cabbalistic or magical sign or symbol. Related is the Sacramental character of Catholic doctrine. Famously, John Dee designed his Monas Hieroglyphica in 1564.

In the 19th century, this sense of the word appears mainly in Romantic poetry, such as Sir Walter Scott's Lay of the last minstrel (1805), where "A hallow'd taper shed a glimmering light / On mystic implements of magic might; On cross, and character, and talisman," (6.17).

Semiotics and epistemology

Further information: sign (semiotics)

From the esoteric or mystical meanings, Early Modern learned authors abstracted a notion of Character as a code or hierarchical system that embodied all knowledge or all of reality, or a written representation of a philosophical language that would recover the "true names" lost in the confusion of tongues.

This idea had currency as a kind of epistemological philosophers' stone for about a century, from the mid 17th century, with Francis Lodwick (1642) and John Wilkins's Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668), to the later 18th century and the Encyclopédie where in a long entry under the heading Charactère, D'Alembert critically reviewed such projects of the past century.

See also

Look up character in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Character". Encyclopædia Britannica. 5 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 856.
  2. χαρακτήρ, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
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