In my last post, I talked briefly about the change to the Mobile Safari toolbar and mentioned that the magnifying glass icon that had been used to invoke the Google search feature never really meant “search” to me. I’ve been thinking why that is.

My first thought when seeing a magnifying glass icon is “magnify.” Make bigger. Zoom in. And, of course, the magnifying glass (often with a + inside the lens) is the standard icon for the zoom feature in most software. That’s the use imprinted on my brain.

The use of a magnifying glass for “search” is clearly meant to invoke the idea of a detective searching for clues. Sherlock Holmes (or more likely, Basil Rathbone playing Sherlock Holmes) is the canonical example. Apple has a thing for Sherlock Holmes; for the better part of a decade, Macs had an file and web searching application named Sherlock. Its icon was a deerstalker hat overlaid with a magnifying glass. This invocation of Sherlock Holmes is culturally specific; the weird thing is, even though I’m in that culture, the magnifying glass doesn’t work for me.

You’ll remember from elementary1 school that words that sound the same but have different meanings (to, too, two) are called homonyms. In typography, characters that look nearly the same but are different (0, O) are called homoglyphs. I’ve been thinking the meaning of homoglyph should be extended to icons. The magnifying glass is would be the standard example. But are there any others?


  1. My dear Watson.