In this week’s class of advanced English reading we look at the reasons the founding father’s employed the symbolism represented on the back of a dollar bill.

Advanced English Reading – The Symbolism Of The Dollar                                              

The other day my son passed me a dollar bill, pointed to the back of it, and said, “What’s that, Papa?” 

I followed the path of his finger and saw that he was pointing to the pyramid on the reverse of the note, and all I could say was, “It’s a pyramid”.

“I know it’s a pyramid, Papa, but why’s it got an eye on top of it?”

“Bloody good question,” I thought. “Come back in two hours and I’ll tell you.”

Sam left the study and I sat staring at the dollar bill, amazed by the mysterious looking image. I immediately realised that this was a good example of a phenomena which we will call VFB, a clumsy acronym for Visual Familiarity Blindness.

This phenomenon makes the observer blind to interesting visual stimuli because he sees them constantly, or because the image is associated with an everyday, mundane task – paying for things for example. Although I’d had this dollar bill for years, been to America on numerous occasions, and seen the image millions of times… I’d never actually looked at it. I started to research the image and discovered the following.

The reverse of a dollar bill has a pyramid on the left and an American eagle on the right. It is a fascinating mix of history, mythology and philosophy, and the two images stem from the eighteenth century and the ideals on which the United States was founded. 

First, I’d like you to take a closer look at the pyramid. As you will see, the pyramid has four sides, they are separate and diverse, and they represent the diversity of the different states, nationalities and ideas the country was built on. However, all the different sides of a pyramid rise up and come together in one singular point at which point you find God, represented here as the divine, all seeing eye. Above the eye is the inscription “Annuit Coeptis, ” – “God has smiled on our accomplishments“. If you look closely you will see 13 levels to the pyramid. Of course, the thirteen different levels represent the thirteen founder states and the inscription at the bottom, 1776, is the declaration of independence from Britain, the country that had ruled them previously.

Now let’s move over to the eagle on the right hand side – a familiar image associated with the United States, but again, one that you don’t really look at in detail.

Firstly, the eagle is the bird of the Greek God Zeus, and of course the bald eagle is an animal native to the American continent. Also, it is associated in both Jewish and Greek mythology with war. For a new nation which had just fought for independence from England, it was important to assert its strength. However, look in its claws and you will see a balance. In one claw he holds the arrows of war but in the other the olive branch of peace. And which direction does the eagle face? He looks towards the side of peace.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I found all that symbolism pretty interesting when I discovered it. So, having realised I’d never really looked at a dollar bill, I began to think of other moments of VFB and immediately thought of cities. When walking through the centre of Barcelona, for example, I occasionally realise that I’m walking past some incredibly beautiful buildings. But I can’t really appreciate them because they’re connected to dozens of other beautiful buildings and they all start merging into one, and just becoming a standard visual backdrop. If however I was walking in a village, or a forest, and suddenly one of these buildings appeared, standing alone, I would marvel at it and admire the incredible detail and aesthetics of the architecture.

An even more striking case was during my teenage years when I ended up in Athens. I had great plans for a Greek island paradise, but unfortunately ran out of money and got marooned in the smog filled Greek capital. Having no money, the only thing to do was hangout at the museum. Every day! It wasn’t long before I began to observe clear examples of Visual Familiarity Blindness. The first Greek statue the visitors saw, they stopped and admired and analysed and appreciated, but each subsequent statue they spent less and less time until eventually they were just walking past statues barely glancing at them. And these were priceless works of art! Antiquities of exquisite beauty but… put exquisite beauty in a line and it soon becomes visually uninteresting. 

Recently, I’ve started to counter VFB by looking at things. All sorts of things which I never used to look at. On the train for example, I’ve started to study people in intense detail; to look for clues about their lives in minute details: princess finger nails manicured and rounded, or nervous finger tips bitten and gnarled; tattoos – what image have they chosen and why; and shoes – poverty shows up in holey, weather beaten shoes.

Anyway, I digress, my friends, and as always, I tell you what you already know: that we should pay more attention to everyday things. But it’s good to be reminded, because the human is a specialist in not paying attention to the obvious. So don’t forget: all around you are secrets ready to discover, symbolism to decipher, and a million untold stories. Simply open your eyes… and you can unlock them all.


Okay, I hope you enjoyed today’s class…now I’d like you to do your writing task for the week by visiting our website – or our Facebook page – advanced English Ingocio – and tell us about the symbolism of your country’s flag or banknotes. Even better – send us an image with a description or a history of the person on the note. Thank you.


Vocabulary Focus


  • All seeing – ve todo: someone that sees everything “The divine, all seeing eye.”
  • Ruled – gobernado: governed. A king or government ‘rules’ a country. “1776 is the declaration of independence from Britain, the country that had ruled them previously.“
  • Claws – garras: the toes of a bird. “However, look in its claws and you will see a balance.“
  • Merging – fusión: fusing and coming together to create one. “They all start merging into one, and just becoming a standard visual backdrop.“
  • Visual backdrop – fondo: what you can see behind the principle thing you are looking at.
  • Smog – humo neblinoso: the pollution in a city caused by cars. “Unfortunately I ran out of money and got marooned in the smog filled metropolis of the Greek capital.“
  • Hang out – pasar un rato: to pass time with. “Having no money, the only thing to do was hangout at the museum.“
  • Finger tips – puntas de los dedos: the ends of your fingers. “Nervous finger tips bitten and gnarled.”


    1. Gnarled – nudoso:  chewed, weather beaten, fingers that are rough from lots of work are ‘gnarled’ 


  • Holey –  agujereado: something with holes in. “Poverty shows up in holey, weather beaten shoes.“
  • Weather  beaten – golpeado por el tiempo: something that has been worn down, made old looking, or degraded by exposure to the weather.
  • Unlock – abrir: to release something or make available something that was closed or concealed. “You can unlock them all.



Advanced English Reading questions



  • Does Rokeby consider VFB a good acronym? Justify your answer?
  • What two factors make people blind to interesting visual stimuli?
  • What contradictory forces are represented by the eagle?
  • Which of the two does the eagle prefer?
  • What happened to Rokeby’s plan for an island paradise?


Advanced Reading Answers


  • Rokeby says it is a ‘clumsy’ (torpe) acronym.
  • Because he sees them constantly, or because the image is associated with an everyday, mundane task – paying for things for example.
  • War and peace.
  • He is looking towards peace.
  • He ran out of money and was stranded in Athens.


Thanks for attending this week’s reading class designed to help you with the Cambridge exam.


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