Q: I’ve always wanted to know about the symbols for male (the arrow coming from a circle) and female (the cross hanging from a circle). What is the story behind those?
A: I found an explanation in a 2005 British Medical Journal article written by consultant neurologist G.D. Schott.
I never realized it before, but the symbols apparently once were commonly used in scientific charts that deal with matters such as genetics and botany.
Anyway, Schott wrote that the reason for the symbols apparently comes from contractions in Greek writing of the Greek names of the planets Thouros (Mars) and Phosphoros (Venus).
The Mars one became associated with males and Venus one with females. The reason for that likely is the image of Mars being the Roman god of war and Venus being the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite, according to the QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins.
The male symbol represents the shield and spear of Mars, while the female symbol represents Aphrodite’s hand mirror.
Schott states that Carl Linnaeus, a botanist in the 1700s, played a major role in developing symbols of alchemy, chemistry and pharmacy into botany.
Linnaeus used the symbols as a shorthand to save time and space, according to Schott, who states that the male and female symbols today often are depicted as a square and circle.
Schott explains that Pliny Earle, a physician at the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane in New York, came up with the circle and square in 1845 while studying color blindness in his family. He created a genealogical chart, with males being squares and females circles.
Schott states that Earle didn’t explain why he chose those symbols, but Schott has heard a theory offered by Edward Nettleship, who was a fellow of the Royal Society and consultant ophthalmic surgeon to the Royal London Ophthalmic and St. Thomas’s Hospitals.
Nettleship explains that Earle couldn’t find a printer’s symbol for the standard male and female symbols. He did, however, find one with music symbols and found some symbols that resemble circles and squares. So, he used those.
Staff Writer Bernie Delinski writes Just Ask, which runs Wednesdays in the TimesDaily. If you have a question, e-mail it to bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com, call him at 256-740-5739, fax it to 256-740-4717 or send it to Just Ask, c/o TimesDaily, P.O. Box 797, Florence, AL 35631.