What is a one-word synonym for "religious symbol"?


The Cross, Star of David, Khanda, etc.

Alternatively, if such a word does not exist, a neologism would suffice. Here is a casual conversation context:

"Can anyone name the religious symbol in the middle of the diagram?"

My reasons for seeking a synonym are brevity, cadence, and intrigue. Though I don't mind a multisyllabic synonym/neologism.

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    I'm not sure there is a single word for this. Wikipedia and all its citations simply refer to them with the binomial "religious symbol".
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 5:30
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    You can try. Sometimes they get closed, sometimes they don't. If you want to maximize your chances, edit in a couple interesting example sentences where the word would be used, and make note of any connotations or characteristics you want -- or don't want -- the word to have. For example, if you're writing medieval high fantasy and would like a word with the appropriate polysyllabic gravitas, mention that. If you want a short, one syllable word that you can spit out as an epithet, say that. If you want a neologism John Q Public would understand instantly, without a lookup, tell us.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 5:34
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    Thanks for the edits, but the specific example you gave doesn't tell us why the normal two-word phrase "religious symbol" doesn't work for you. It seems perfectly fine in that sentence. Why do you want a single word? Why is that important? (Please don't think I'm being not-picky here, I honestly am trying to help you maximize your chances of getting useful answers.)
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 5:40
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    Brevity, cadence, intrigue. Though I don't mind a multisyllabic synonym/neologism.
    – J D
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 5:43
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    Worth spelling out that comment in your question. The more details you offer and the more interesting you make it, the more votes and answers you'll get.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 5:44

7 Answers 7


I have some suggestions. The first, 'hierogram', is not a neologism, and on the whole strikes me as the best option:

hierogram, n.
A sacred symbol; ... (lit. and fig.).

["hierogram, n.". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/86816?redirectedFrom=hierogram (accessed March 04, 2016).]

The OED Online definition matches the definition found in Collins English Dictionary.

hierogram (ˈhaɪərəˌɡræm)
a sacred symbol

[hierogram. (n.d.) Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014. (1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014). Retrieved March 4 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hierogram ]

My other suggestions, 'Tetragrammaton' and 'symbol', do not seem as suited to the question. 'Tetragrammaton' was sometimes used with the general figurative sense of

c. fig. An emblem or symbol of something sacred. Obs. rare.

["Tetragrammaton, n.". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/199850?redirectedFrom=tetragrammaton (accessed March 05, 2016).]

This word is only considerable because the question specified that a neologism might be acceptable. Reviving the obsolete and rare figurative use of 'Tetragrammaton' would be neologistic and, additionally, might risk confusion with the extant sense, which is much more detailed and specific, and so not particularly suitable as an answer for the question:

a. A word of four letters; spec. the Hebrew word written yhwh or jhvh (vocalized as ya hwe h, ja hve h, or je ho va h, q.v.); often substituted for that word (regarded as ineffable), and treated as a mysterious symbol of the name of God; sometimes used as a title of the Deity (see quot. 1689).

(op. cit.)

The other suggestion, 'symbol', does not seem to answer the question, for obvious reasons (the request was for a 'religous symbol', and 'symbol' is currently used with a much broader denotation), although the earliest uses of 'symbol' were specific to 'religious symbols':

1. a. A formal authoritative statement or summary of the religious belief of the Christian church, or of a particular church or sect; a creed or confession of faith, spec. the Apostles' Creed.

This use is traceable to Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c250), who applies Latin symbolum to the baptismal creed, this creed being the ‘mark’ or ‘sign’ of a Christian as distinguished from a heathen. The notion, long current, that the creed was so called because it was ‘put together’ by the Apostles is without foundation in fact.

["symbol, n.1". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/196197?rskey=1gOSeD&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed March 05, 2016).]

Disambiguation: 'hierogram', 'hieroglyph', 'hierograph'

Some confusion about the uses of 'hierogram', 'hieroglyph' and 'hierograph' became evident in the comments on this answer. Of the three, 'hierogram' is the only one used with the general and primary sense of 'a sacred symbol' (as shown in the definitions given above). 'Hierogram' is sometimes used, in technical contexts, to mean 'hieroglyph', but that is a secondary sense confined to specialized uses with reference to, specifically, a subset of hieroglyphs regarded as sacred.

'Hieroglyph', in contrast, refers to

  1. A picture or symbol used in hieroglyphic writing.
  2. Something that suggests a hieroglyph.

[hieroglyph. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved March 5 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hieroglyph ]

'Hieroglyph' does not denote sacredness, and has no necessary connotation of sacredness.

'Hierograph', on the other hand, does denote sacredness, but is used specifically to denote sacred writing, characters, or inscriptions:

hierograph (ˈhaɪərəˌɡrɑːf) n
sacred writing or characters.

[Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014. S.v. "hierograph." Retrieved March 5 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hierograph ]

Another definition, from OED Online, where the close relationship between 'hierographs' and 'hieroglyphs' is made plain,

hierograph, n
A sacred inscription or symbol: a hieroglyph.

["hierograph, n.". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/86819?redirectedFrom=hierograph (accessed March 05, 2016).]

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    I think this answer is misleading. A hierogram is a sacred symbol but not all sacred symbols are hierograms.
    – JamesRyan
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 14:42
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    I'm not following you, @JamesRyan. Aren't they all, by definition? Please name a sacred symbol that is not a hierogram.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 21:26
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    The term hierogram covers sacred inscriptions. It is not limited in meaning to individual symbols. Also, strictly speaking, a hierogram is a holy/priestly writing (as on papyrus), and a hieroglyph is a holy/priestly carving (as on a stone surface). Either word can be used figuratively to mean the writing regardless of the medium, and in that case the words have the same meaning. Hieroglyph also has a derived meaning, Egyptian writing, because in the past it was believed that the carven Egyptian images had holy, esoteric meanings.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:38
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    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 OK... name me a religious symbol that is not sacred to the followers of its religion.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:52
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    "a sacred emblem or graphic symbol" –MW That seems to support you both (actually, now I'm getting totally lost here) @JamesRyan - You've still not provided me with an example.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 22:20

Perhaps icon would do the trick?


  1. Also i·kon (ī′kŏn′)

    a. An image; a representation.

    b. A representation or picture of a sacred or sanctified Christian personage, traditionally used and venerated in the Eastern Church.

  2. An important and enduring symbol


Definition taken from theFreeDictionary.com

There are quite a few definitions listed here that seem to encapsulate what you are attempting to communicate.

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    @JD I like it too and have upvoted it. I'd actually considered icon but dismissed it because I thought it in a religious context, an icon was required to depict a person (or persona). But this user's dictionary link proves otherwise (though I wish he'd pasted in the relevant definition.)
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 6:25
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    As Dan says, within the context of religion, an "Icon" is a specific thing. (Basically a certain type of painting, usually on a wood panel.) Of course, "icon" has other meanings in other contexts, notably a "symbol" on an on-screen computer button. Icon is not right here.
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 17:29
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    Could you paste the definitions into your answer? That way, if the link dies (however unlikely that is!) your answer will still be good.
    – anon
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 19:50
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    Within the context of religion you could just say symbol. I hear it most commonly referred as a religious icon. All you're offering is a synonym for symbol which also stands alone provided it's within religious context. I'm not sure what the OP wants but you'll get no 'up' from me without a word that doesn't need context.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 21:34
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    icon just means symbol, except in the context where it means painting of an important religious person. This makes it a poor substitute for "religious symbol". Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:13

Totem is a decent word too.

The third definition of "a person or thing that represents an idea" fits nicely for the religious symbol. It's not perfect, though. First, "totem" is associated with Native American and other "primitive" cultures. Secondly, the idea is not specifically "religious". Thirdly, it does suggest an actual physical object.

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    One definition of "Fetish" is a synonym for this. Not making a new answer because that word has * ahem* another meaning that is much more likely to be inferred in modern English. Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 17:27
  • fetish: an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit. –Google's first definition
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 21:35
  • @Mazura - Yeah, not sure how Google orders those definitions, because the other meaning (you know which one I mean) seems to be far more common in modern parlance. I don't have science to back that up though. Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:21
  • @DarrelHoffman - I agree. I should have added a TIL, as I was only familiar with its modern meaning: "a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc." Also, until I looked it up a while ago, I thought it meant that you totally couldn't get off without it, whereas it's merely linked to at an abnormal degree.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:43
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    @Mazura - TIL what "TIL" stands for. (Had to look that one up.) Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:55

Surprising that no one has raised Talisman:

A talisman is an object which is believed to contain certain magical or sacramental properties which would provide good luck for the possessor or possibly offer protection from evil or harm

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    sacramental; adverb: an action or object (as the rosary) of ecclesiastical origin that serves to express or increase devotion (noun: something likened to a religious sacrament) The noun's definition leads me to believe that the word can be used outside of Christianity, so plus one for talisman.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 23:20
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    This is a good one, though it has the same problem that many of them have in that it specifically refers to a physical object you can hold. It doesn't work for a symbol drawn, carved, or painted on a surface. Still, worth a +1 anyhow. Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 18:29

How about relic?

1 a : an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr –MW

It's more object orientated, but still indicates a religious context.

  • 1
    That carries the additional connotation of it being old. A religious symbol that was manufactured recently wouldn't be considered a relic. Also, "relic" can sometimes be used to refer to ancient treasures with no religious significance. Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 18:08
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    A relic is an object, a tangible thing, not a symbol. Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:14

The Oxford English Dictionary defines image as:

[...] an imitation in the solid form; a statue, effigy, sculptured figure. (Often applied to figures of saints or divinities as objects of religious veneration.)

Emphasis mine.

Rather loose, but given the correct context it's what the OP is asking for.



an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship –Google

image - can be anything carved, embossed, hewn, or forged

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    This is incorrect. A Star of David (Magen David) is not an idol. A cross is not an idol. An idol is only an object treated like a god, or representing one.
    – AAM111
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:13
  • @OldBunny2800 - I'm pretty sure the holy cross represents one of the members of the holy trinity, if not all of 'them'. A Rosary is definitely an idol.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:49
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    I don't want to get into religion, but (i'm not positive, but pretty sure) Christians don't pray to a cross, they pray to Jesus, God, and Mary.
    – AAM111
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 23:02
  • @Mazura I am pretty sure that Christians would reject the characterization of a cross or rosary as an idol. After all, beyond the issue of not praying to them, Christian churches don't seem to see any contradiction between these objects and an interdiction on idolatry.
    – Casey
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 4:46
  • "object of worship" is pretty vague and you both bring up good points but my point here is similar to my comments above, only here it's one man's garbage is another man's treasure. Christan's may not pray to the cross and they might reject this characterization but that doesn't mean that i have any problem with it whatsoever. I vaguely remember that thing about idolatry, but I would assume a lot of people do, shall we say, pray at the cross. Because it's an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship. Theology aside, the definition fits.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 5:07

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