You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Why I am iconicoclastic

The Baltimore Sun

Yesterday, when I posted that I had once again deleted the word iconic from a text I was editing, responses included these two: the challenging question “Why are you ok with some words that have changed meanings over time, but you are hung up on icon and iconic?” and the plaintive “Are SOME things iconic?”

I have answers for both.

An icon, the religious object, presents an image, a representation. The image allows the faithful to stand (or kneel) in this world and look through the image into the next. It is not the thing itself, but it points to the important thing.

In the natural course of language, the word has broadened from religious associations to mean “symbolic, emblematic, or representative.” And it is images that are symbolic.

That photograph of Marilyn Monroe on a subway grate with her dress blown up in The Seven Year Itch is iconic; it brings to mind the associations of Monroe’s career, stardom, Hollywood, the standards of beauty in midcentury America, and others. It is a rich image. Monroe herself is not iconic, but the photo of her is.

The design of the 1957 Chevrolet can be called iconic, representing an epoch in American automobile manufacturing and all that we associate with American culture of the 1950s. The Chrysler Building is iconic, summing up Art Deco style and inevitably suggesting Manhattan and New York City.

The objection to iconic is not that the meaning has broadened, but that it has been employed by unskilled writers. It has become an irritating tic, used so frequently that it seldom means anything more than “familiar” or “well known.” I take it out for the same reason that I delete prestigious, because what it actually means is no more than “Lookee here, I’m writing about something important.”

I am making an editorial judgment about the effectiveness of the prose. Yesterday's post also drew this response: "I am so paranoid about using that word now, and it's all your fault."

No need to thank me. 

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