The Grammarphobia Blog

Symbolic art

Q: Senator McCain was asked on the campaign trail whether there was an “emblematic relationship” between the Constitution and Christianity. What exactly does that mean? And how should the word “symbolic” be used in normal conversation – i.e., “symbolic dance” or “symbolic thinking”?

A: You wonder what an “emblematic relationship” between the Constitution and Christianity means. Not much!

Dictionaries define the adjective “emblematic” as symbolic or representative or typical. So I guess one could say there’s an emblematic relationship between a cross and Christianity, or between the Constitution and democracy.

Similarly, one might say a constitution is emblematic of democracy, or Christianity is emblematic of monotheism. But heaven only knows what “an emblematic relationship” between the Constitution and Christianity could refer to.

We borrowed the word “emblematic” in the 17th century from the French emblématique, which ultimately comes from the Latin emblema, which means emblem.

As for “symbolic,” it means using or characterized by symbols, but it’s probably used more often in a looser way to mean typical of, as in “His tantrum is symbolic of the terrible twos.” We borrowed “symbolic” in the 17th century from symbolicus, late Latin for symbol.

I think both “emblematic” and “symbolic” are overused these days, too often imprecisely. I wouldn’t use “emblematic” at all in normal conversation and I’d use “symbolic” sparingly.

Instead of “It’s a symbolic dance,” I’d say “The dance uses a circle as a symbol of the sun.” Instead of “symbolic thinking,” I’d say what I mean (whatever that is).

These, in my opinion, are words that allow a speaker (or writer) to blur any genuine meaning. But of course that may be the speaker’s intention!

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