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secrets and symbols

Isn’t communication extraordinary? What started out as grunts and gestures to signal a physical need, now encompasses painting, poetry, literature, love stories, marketing and, the quite frankly baffling, miming along to other people’s songs on Tik Tok.

Our ability to communicate is made possible through a shared understanding – the acceptance of a common linguistic/visual referencing system within societal groups….. basically, the capacity to speak and understand a common language.

At times, circumstance deems it necessary for smaller sections to develop a secret language. The word ‘cant’ describes the language of a group, employed to exclude or mislead people outsiders. Think of Cockney Rhyming Slang or Traveller’s Shelta. English lexicographer Terence Dolan has suggested that rhyming slang was invented by Irish immigrants to London so the English people would not understand what they were talking about. In fact the word ‘Cant’ itself has been traced back to the Irish word for speech ‘caint’.

Visual communication embraces both common-symbols and shared-secrets. There is the primary job of a message to be conveyed and understood, and working below the surface, a designer can embed a hidden reference or sign that only those in the know will get and appreciate.

I have explored this in my latest project, The Beautifull Cassandra. Written by Jane Austen when she was 12, this tiny tale narrates a day in the life of a young girl. Cassandra meanders about the town engaging in gluttony, robbery and violence and on the surface it is a subversive story of a wild girl. I have attempted to take the narrative a step further and traced an inner discovery of self-empowerment alongside her Ferris-Beuller-style ‘day off‘.

I have used floriograhy – the secret language of flowers to create this sub-story layer. Floriography was popularised in France during 1810–1850, while over here it was most fashionable during the Victorian age, where gifts of blooms were used to send coded messages allowing the sender to express feelings which could not be spoken aloud in Victorian society.

I have also embedded a reference to the Sound of Music in the book. This idea of a secret visual started some years back with a book I was writing about zero. I was getting weighed down by the illustrations so decided to weave the Sound of Music into one of the pages to cheer myself up. The reference to the movie is very obvious in Cassandra, but there is also one in The Curious Lady’s Guide to Marriage. I wonder has anyone spotted it.
If you would like a copy of The Beautifull Cassandra you can find details here. (There is an alarming figure which pops up for postage but it is actually free in Ireland and that alarming figure disappears when you enter an Irish address).

In the meantime, I’m off to weave secrets, symbols and the Sound of Music into my next project which is a set of prints à la William Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress. I shall feature Peg Plunkett, Ireland’s most fabulous eighteenth-century madam…… or as she might have phrased it, a Bird of Paradise with many a Side-Slips, who lived both plump in the pocket and at point non plus.

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