Why symbols dictionaries don’t work

There’s a popular idea that you can decode dreams in the same way as you might translate from a foreign language, by using a symbols dictionary. If you’ve ever tried it, you may have found it less than enlightening.

The point about symbols is that, unlike signs, they have no fixed or universal meaning. For example, a dog would mean something very different symbolically to someone who has been bitten as a child and always avoided them, and a dog-lover brought up in a dog-loving family.

For me, roses always carry connotations of my grandmother’s garden – the smell, the velvety petals, the dark dusky colours – and they have added resonance from all the happy and sad occasions when I played in her garden as a child. Roses are, for me, what madeleines were for Proust.


For someone whose first real awareness of roses was as lovers’ gifts, they might be a symbol of romantic love, or they might conjur negative memories for someone whose abusing partner always bought roses to express remorse, for example.

Meaning isn’t only different for different dreamers; it evolves over time within the individual consciousness. The same person who thinks of roses as symbols of love and romance at twenty might also associate them with violence and betrayal at forty.

When I was a child, I ate some berries which made me very sick, and got into a lot of trouble for it. Berries meant Bad. My first encounters with wild blackberries and blueberries were deeply mistrustful, but ultimately positive, so now berries have much wider symbolic potential.


In the same way, a culture’s symbols are always developing. The swastica  carried positive significance before the Nazis adopted it as their emblem. The Union Jack has been tainted by association with extreme right-wing groups in the UK.


When I was a child, cigarette-smoking was considered a healthy activity, associated with youth, beauty and the great outdoors. Now, all those connotations have completely disappeared.

The objects in dreams don’t have a set meaning; they have personal resonance. If you want to understand more about them, don’t look in a book of definitions. Look in your own life and experiences; notice your own emotional responses to them.

Having said that, there is a kind of dream book which can sometimes throw some light on what dreams mean. I’ll be blogging about it next week.

8 thoughts on “Why symbols dictionaries don’t work”

  1. What a lovely post. You are so right about our experiences being tangled up with how we view particular things. Roses symbolise the same to me as you, Jenny, reminding me of my Grandma’s garden, and also, of our own garden when I was little and used to crush the petals to make perfume. The smell of them now takes me straight back to those memories. So, yes, when these things crop up in our dreams, they are going to have different meanings aren’t they? In last night’s dream I was Jack Sparrow (from Pirates of the Carribbean) and was walking on a narrow path that ran the length of, and was attached to, the outside, of a train… have no idea what THAT says! 😀

  2. How interesting that roses trigger childhood memories for you too, Abi. The look of roses is redolent for me, but far more evocative, as you say, the perfume. Only old-fashioned varieties seem to have that, so you rarely smell it these days, and I guess that might be part of its power. Oddly enough, the post I’m writing next week will feature a narrow path from one of my dreams, and a way of sensing meaning. Yours sounds a lot more swashbuckling, I have to say, but mine has fish!

  3. I’ve never really bought into the idea of decoding dream for the exact reasons you talk about. Our perceptions and memories of people and places and events can be so different to the way someone else perceives or remembers something. And your point about cultural symbols is really interesting because things can change so much with time. ‘Lucozade’ for me will always be something you drink when you are ill whereas my kids see the same bottle and make the association of health and fitness!

  4. Me too! I always think of Lucozade as something you drink when you’re ill – like chicken soup or beef tea – I didn’t notice it had evolved into a fitness drink, until you mentioned it. I dislike the idea of decoding dreams as well – it feels like a dissection, and the thing you’re dissecting, if it isn’t already dead, soon will be! I feel they’re part of the living fabric of the self, the authentic voice of the soul, and the best way to learn is simply to listen

  5. Absolutely, Angie – one of the things I love about dreams, they’re a world unique to me 🙂

  6. Hi, interesting reading. I have to say that it’s easier said than done when it comes to looking at our own stuff and books like dream dictionaries just help give a bit of guidance. At the end of the day dreams are the messages from our subconscious world.

  7. Hi Jay – I know what you mean – sometimes dreams can feel so obscure we just want a bit of help getting a handle on them. I personally feel that focusing on the objects of dreams can provide a distraction and lead us up blind alleys, making the dream feel even more confusing. Coming at them from the subjective angle, through the emotions, is more holistic – I’ve just blogged about it today. As a general concept, I don’t think of dreams as messages, because that suggests a need to understand; I think of them as experiences, like the experiences of waking life – they will bring meaning and learning, but on the gut level, over time, not through analysis straight away. Thank you for commenting – it’s good to have a debate!

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