By John E. McIntyre
The Baltimore Sun
11:16 AM EDT, July 17, 2013
Readers of this blog are aware by now that I have inveighed for years against the current journalistic tendency to label nearly anything an icon or iconic. Let me explain why that is not a mere cavil.
An icon is not a person; an icon is an image. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, an icon is a portrait of a saint or a painting of a scene from Scripture. Iconoclasts object to the veneration of icons as praying to mere objects, but that is a vulgar misunderstanding. An icon in this tradition is a window into the next world, into eternity, and the devout worshiper attempts to transcend this world and communicate with the eternal one through that window.
In the secular world, narrowly understood, an icon is still an image. That photo of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch with her skirt billowing up from a blast of air from a subway grating is an iconic image; it evokes a sense of female sexuality and the cultural values of a particular time in America. That photo of John-John Kennedy saluting as his father's casket is carried past is an iconic image evoking the entire Kennedy family Camelot myth. That photo of people desperately climbing into a helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon is an iconic encapsulation of the whole tragic, wasteful, futile U.S. adventure in Vietnam.
The word iconic should be used to evoke the same powerful sense of time, place, and culture. Instead, it is promiscuously tagged in contemporary journalism to anyone who possesses a shred of fame, pressed into use to replace legendary, which has gone spavined.* It is like the dramatic and prestigious, other wasted words worn smooth from the burden of supporting the writer's attempt to tell the reader something is important without showing it to be so.
Now iconic is still a word and still in use, and you are perfectly free to use it, no matter the curl of my lip whenever I see you doing it. My writ does not extend beyond The Baltimore Sun, and is often disregarded there. This is America, and you are free to write as you please; and if your editor is too busy, too tone-deaf, or too slipshod to stop you, then bless your heart and go ahead. Doofus.
*If you are still using legendary, I regret to have to inform you that you have slipped way behind the times.
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