Mind your language

Save the innocent swastika!

The more this ancient symbol is removed from harmless uses, the more it will be associated with Nazism alone

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

There is a nice row of swastikas at head height in Burlington Gardens, behind the Royal Academy. They are carved below a plaque ‘Founded ad MDCCCXXXVI’. (The date refers, not to the Academy, but to the University of London, which had its offices here until 1900.) The architect was James Pennethorne. His swastikas did not derive from India, I think, but from Greek temples he visited in Italy in 1826. Greek buildings often have swastika elements, if only by running together two strips of the key pattern.

I was thinking about this because of the news that, in prospect of the Olympic Games in 2020, Japan was planning to change the sign for a temple on tourist maps from swastikas to little pagodas. The Japanese symbol is called manji and derives from Chinese writing. Perhaps it arrived with Buddhism. In the Nazi swastika, the arm at the top bends to the right. Ancient Asian examples often bend to the left. Those at Burlington Gardens bend both ways. Naturally, the more the swastika is removed from innocent uses, the more it will be associated with Nazism alone. In 2014, when someone suddenly noticed swastikas carved on the facade of the Essex County Council building in Chelmsford, there was a hoo-ha, even though they dated from the 1930s.


Swastika was first used in English in the 1870s, taken straight from the Sanskrit svastika, ‘good fortune’ or ‘well being’. Some people say that an older English word is fylfot. But that word derives solely from Lansdowne Manuscript 874 in the British Library, dating from about 1500, which gives instructions for a memorial window. One element was ‘the fylfot in the nedermast pane’. But the reference was to the ‘fill-foot’, the patterning at the foot of the window, rather than to the shape of the devices.

Another academic word for the swastika has been ‘gamma–dion’ or ‘gammadion cross’, since it resembles four capital gammas stuck together at right angles. In heraldry, fylfot has been pecked up in a magpie fashion, but the term ‘cross cramponnee’ bears the same meaning.

In Dublin, the Swastika Laundry (founded 1912) throve until a generation after Hitler. Japan has held out a bit longer.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Jonathan Sebire

    Really interesting. I live in a building originally built for service personnel’s widows and relatives after WW1. About a week after moving I put my finger on what was odd about the stairs. The metal work of the banisters contains recurring swastikas.

    It’s an interesting point on the power of visual v linguistic programming how much keener people are to reclaim words over symbols.

  • Son_of_Casandra

    I’m not surprised the Swastika Laundry survived for so long in Dublin.

  • Hermine Funkington-Rumpelstilz

    The people of India reassured me on my last journey to the country that the Indian swastika was not comparable to the one the Austro-Hungarian Germans misappropriated. I had little reason to doubt that, having studied the context extensively.

  • Social Justice Warrior

    this symbol of evil must be completely banned. I don’t care if it has other ‘harmless’ uses

    anybody who disagrees with me is a n@zi themselves

    • Mike Christie

      Upvoted for outstanding satire.

    • Roger Hudson

      Tw?t.
      If everything the horrible Nazis had anything to do with we would lose a lot.
      Isn’t the Swastika (hakenkreutz) derived from a solar symbol, we all worship the sun, don’t we (we’d all be dead without it).

    • King Zog

      I had my doubts, but now I’m convinced of your true nature.

  • Herman_U_Tick

    Isn’t there a ‘cultural appropriation’ whine-gripe to be had by somebody here somewhere?
    Not sure exactly how it would work but that’s why experts get paid isn’t it?

    Something along the lines of: folk who want to remind us that the swastika had an innocent origin are mis-appropriating, whereas folk who want to ban are being racisst. Or vice-versa.

  • Ray Spring

    We had lots of Swastikas in Christchurch, NZ, Cathedral. Sadly it half fell down in the 2011 Quakes. Replacement of Swastikas seem to be low on the agenda. Half want to retain the old Cathedral, the other half want one built to defy earthquakes.

  • FedUpIndian

    The Nazis used both the Swastika and the Iron Cross, but only the swastika is controversial while crosses are not. What a surprise.

  • King Zog

    I love the Svastika. It’s everywhere in Tibet, unashamedly. But it’s aso in surprising places in the UK. The corridors of the Guild Hall in Swansea (completed well before WWII) are decorated by them.

  • William Matthews

    On my trips to Japan, I often visit some of the temples and this symbol is everywhere. (well the inverted version) It’s certainly a weird experience seeing it on flags and the like, even knowing what it really symbolizes. It’s a similar feeling to seeing a shark or snake. For me anyway.

    I believe it should be kept. Destroying a mere symbol doesn’t change anything, and it merely breeds a little more ignorance.

  • Lawrence James.

    Swastikas often appear on clerical vestments as portrayed on 14th-century church brasses,

Close