In the Dan Brown books, Robert Langdon is a "professor of religious symbology." Is there really any such thing?

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Sept. 14 2009 5:28 PM

Can You Really Be a Professor of Symbology?

No, but you can study symbols all you want.

Tom Hanks in The DaVinci Code. Click image to expand.
Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon, as played by Tom Hanks

The Lost Symbol, the latest Dan Brown thriller starring dashing code-cracker Robert Langdon, goes on sale Tuesday. Langdon, a professor of Religious Symbology at Harvard University, has used his expertise to wondrous effect in prior novels. Is there such a thing as a professor of symbology in real life?

No. Professors in many fields study the use of symbols in the particular contexts they find most interesting, but, as of now, no one holds the title "professor of religious symbology" at Harvard or any other university.

Professors of sociology, linguistics, mathematics, and religion tend to be most interested in symbols. They might study how symbols developed, how they are used, and in what way they influence or limit the ways we think. Academics from other fields also write on the history of symbols: A political scientist, for example, might study how the pink triangle transitioned from a Nazi instrument to a symbol of gay pride. Or a professor of archaeology might study evidence of an early alphabet on stone tablets. Both of these researchers are dealing in symbology. In most cases, however, knowledge of the underlying field is far more important to the study than a broad familiarity with the use of symbols across disciplines. Symbology hasn't caught on as a free-standing academic pursuit.

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The word symbology itself adds to the confusion, since it has two distinct meanings. In the first, the suffix logy refers to "a manner of speaking," as in the words eulogy and trilogy. Thus symbology refers to the use of symbols or a system of symbols as a means of communication. That's what symbology meant when it first entered the English language at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1819, for example, one author described "gregarious animals, though infinitely inferior to man, in their system of symbology, communicate to each other a multitude of impressions." An 1877 dictionary defines the word only as "the art of expressing through symbols."

Around the turn of the 20th century, symbology came to have a second meaning in which the suffix logy referred to "the study of," as in the words biology and psychology. (Attention, Dan Brown fans: Among the first publications to clearly use this meaning is a history of Freemasonry.) The relatively recent development of this definition helps explain why symbology hasn't gained any currency as the title of an academic pursuit. By the time it became recognized as a field of expertise, there were already plenty of better (and better-established) words to describe the job of scholars like the fictional Robert Langdon. To the extent that he spends his time studying religious symbols, he might be called a "professor of religious iconography." (Iconography is about 150 years older than symbology.)  Semiotics  is another cross-disciplinary field that focuses on the use of symbols to convey ideas. Semiotics  entered into the English language around 1850 and, unlike symbology, was always understood as a field of study. *  Moreover, Robert Langdon spends most of his time deciphering codes made of symbols, which would be more appropriately characterized as cryptology or cryptography—the specialty of Brown's Agent Sophie Neveu. (There are real-life professors of cryptography, but most of them are involved in computer science, not religion.)

John Langdon, the real-life academic after whom Brown's protagonist Robert Langdon is named, is a professor of typography at Drexel University.

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Explainer thanks Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Clarification, Sept. 16, 2009: The original version of this article did not acknowledge semiotics as being the closest field to the fictional area of "symbology." (Return to the clarified sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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