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One of Charles Peirce's three categories of sign, an icon is a sign which is determined by what it represents. In general, words not only appear dissimilar to what they represent, the relationship between a word and what it refers to (or what it means) is arbitrary. In contrast, an icon ‘possesses some of the properties of the thing represented’ (Peirce (1939) cited in Hall, 1980: 55). For example: the word ‘cow’ ‘possesses none of the properties of the thing represented, whereas the visual sign [for example, a photograph of a cow] appears to possess some of those properties’ (Hall, 1980: 56). Television images are iconic; so too, though to a lesser extent, are onomatopoeic words like ‘buzz’ or ‘mumble’.

Further Reading
Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding/Decoding’, ...

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