Where did the PAUSE button symbol come from?

Admit it, it’s your favorite button on the remote. Give props if you will to the fast-forward button for its ability to get you past commercials, but it’s that pause button that really makes life worth living. Pay attention to friends, get a sandwich, take care of any of your other business. PAUSE is really where it’s at. Even when it’s combined with the PLAY button, as it so often is lately, it’s still the button that gives you ultimate control of time itself.

The origins of the button symbols

You might have stared at your remote on a rainy day and thought, “who came up with those symbols?” The name of their original designer is lost to history, but they seem like common sense for the most part. These symbols were first seen in the mid-20th century. That was a time when creating simple icons was at top of mind. Most of the signs and symbols we see around us, from street signs to restroom signs, were designed at that time.

Most symbols are common sense.

A triangle pointing to the right gets you moving forward (this makes sense in countries where text runs left to right.) Stack two of them next to each other and you have fast-forward. Flip that around and you have rewind.

The big black square that indicates STOP takes a bit more imagination. The universal road sign for STOP is a red circle, and in the US we use a red octagon. It seems like the octagon might have made sense, but the red circle means record, we all know that. It’s red because in the old days recording was a pretty dangerous operation, considering you could be erasing something important. That big black box looks pretty hard to move, and so it does make some sense (not much.) It also looks vaguely like the symbol for “don’t walk,” a hand with palm showing.

But getting back to PAUSE…

What about that double-rectangle for PAUSE? You could be forgiven for thinking it’s kind of like the symbol for stop, and that does make some sense. The real origin of the symbol seems to be something else though…

(Before we go any further we should point out to those assembled conspiracy theorists that the PAUSE symbol was well-established before 2001 and any resemblance to the World Trade Center is coincidental.)

See, there already was a symbol for PAUSE that goes back several hundred years. In musical notation, a caesura is the term used for a pause of decent size. The same word is used for the part of a poem when you take a breath.

This is the way you indicate a caesura in poetry:


This is how you indicate a caesura in music:

Let’s be honest, that sort of takes the mystery out of the whole thing, doesn’t it? No one knows who thought of applying that symbol to a tape recorder (which seems to be the first place it was used, probably in the 1960s) but it seems pretty likely that the pause symbol and the caesura are one and the same.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.