What Is an Ideogram? Definition and Examples

Glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

Man standing hesitating to make decision
An ideogram for "go that way" or "in this direction" or "over there.".  Olaser / Getty Images

An ideogram is a graphic picture or symbol (such as @ or %) that represents a thing or an idea without expressing the sounds that form its name. Also called ideograph. The use of ideograms is called ideography.

Some ideograms says Enn Otts, "are comprehensible only by prior knowledge of their convention; others convey their meaning through pictorial resemblance to a physical object, and therefore may also be described as pictograms, or pictographs" (Decoding Theoryspeak, 2011).

Ideograms are used in some writing systems, such as Chinese and Japanese. 

From the Greek, "idea" + "written"

Examples and Observations

  • "“[T]he picture [of a finger pointing] is an ideogram; it does not represent a sequence of sounds, but rather a concept that can be expressed in English in various ways: 'go that way' or 'in this direction' or 'over there' or, combined with words or other ideograms, such notions as 'the stairs are to the right' or 'pick up your luggage at that place.' Ideograms are not necessarily pictures of objects; the arithmetic 'minus sign' is an ideogram that depicts not an object but a concept that can be translated as 'minus' or 'subtract the following from the preceding' or 'negative.'"
    (C. M. Millward and Mary Hayes, A Biography of the English Language, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • The X Ideogram
    "As a modern ideogram, the diagonal cross has a wide spectrum of meanings from confrontation, annulment, cancellation, over opposing forces, hindrances, obstruction, to unknown, undecided, unsettled.
    "Here are a number of examples of the specific meanings of X in different systems: a crossbreed between different species, varieties or races (in botany and biology), takes (chess), printing error (printing), I/We cannot continue (ground-to-air emergency code), unknown number or multiply (mathematics), unknown person (Mr. X), and road obstruction (military).
    "The diagonal cross is sometimes used as a symbol for Christ, whose name in Greek begins with the Greek letter X. It also stands for the number 1,000 in ancient Greece, and even represented Chronos, the god of time, the planet Saturn and the god Saturn in Roman mythology."
    (Carl G. Liungman, Thought Signs: The Semiotics of Symbols—Western Non-Pictorial Ideograms. IOS Press, 1995)
  • Pictograms and Ideograms
    "The difference between pictograms and ideograms is not always clear. Ideograms tend to be less direct representations, and one may have to learn what a particular ideogram means. Pictograms tend to be more literal. For example, the no parking symbol consisting of a black letter P inside a red circle with a slanting red line through it is an ideogram. It represents the idea of no parking abstractly. A no parking symbol showing an automobile being towed away is more literal, more like a pictogram."
    (Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams, An Introduction to Language, 9th ed. Wadsworth, 2011)
  • The Rebus Principle
    "When an ideographic system proves too cumbersome and unwieldy, the 'rebus principle' might be employed for greater efficiency. The rebus principle is an important element in the development of many modern-day writing systems because it is the link to representing the spoken language. Unlike pure ideograms, rebus symbols rely on how a language sounds and are specific to a particular language. For example, if English used the symbol [graphic of an eye] for 'eye,' that would be considered an ideogram. But if English also began to use it to represent the pronoun 'I' or the affirmative 'aye,' that would be an example of the rebus principle in action. In order to understand that [graphic of an eye] could mean the pronoun or the affirmative, one must also know English. You could not use that symbol to conjure up the comparable words in Spanish, for example. So, when you read '2 good 2 B 4 gotten,' it is your knowledge of both English and the rebus principle that allows you to assign meaning to it."
    (Anita K. Barry, Linguistic Perspectives on Language and Education. Greenwood, 2002)

Pronunciation: ID-eh-o-gram

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Ideogram? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-ideogram-1691050. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is an Ideogram? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-ideogram-1691050 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Ideogram? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-ideogram-1691050 (accessed May 30, 2023).