You graduated from school years ago, and an English usage lesson is the last thing you need today, but we need to talk about iconic.
The word, that is. Strictly defined, it means “pertaining to an icon.” In popular use, it means “I can’t think of a better adjective, and it sounds kinda classy.” And it’s spreading like omicron.
Let’s search “iconic” in Google News, shall we?
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Closer to home, among the things that in just the last few days have been called iconic? The Hygrade Deli, Cutter’s Bar & Grill, the Fly Trap in Ferndale, Judge Avern Cohn, Detroit DJ Ken Calvert, the Lake St. Clair Boardwalk and, endlessly in recent days, the Oakland Hills Country Club.
The Free Press went a little nuts with it Tuesday, in fact:
Oakland Hills Country Club plans to build a replica of its iconic 99-year-old clubhouse that was destroyed by a massive fire last week.
“I can report that at our board meeting this past Saturday morning,” club president Rick Palmer said Monday, “the board unanimously made an easy decision to determine that the restored, rebuilt clubhouse will be a replica of what the iconic clubhouse was before the fire.
That’s after the word appeared in the headline, but they weren’t done yet, because just a few paragraphs later?
But he said the iconic two-story back porch, which was a replica of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, would return.
I guess you could argue that a replica of Mount Vernon actually is iconic, in the strictest sense of the word, i.e. something that stands in for something else. A religious icon is a rendering of a saint. An icon on your computer desktop stands for an application lurking within. But it doesn’t mean “famous,” “beloved” or even “long-lasting.” And if we apply it to everything, soon it won’t mean anything at all. Or we’ll need an intensifier, the way “star” became “superstar,” or how we have to add “mega” to indicate something is really, really big.
Yes, Michael Jackson was probably an iconic pop star in that he spawned so many imitations. A Corvette is an iconic sports car (American sports car, anyway). Language evolves, and I’m not some Lake Superior State scold, whining about words and phrases that bug me, the previous 410 words notwithstanding. We just need to give poor “iconic” a break.
A friend, an English teacher, used to do an exercise with his students who complained they just couldn’t think of better, more precise language. He’d write “fat” on the board and ask them to call out synonyms. Before long, the board was filled with synonyms with slightly different meanings. Portly, chunky, roly-poly and I guess these days we’d have to add thicc. But the point is, you can do it, too. The next time you want to call something iconic, dig a little deeper. Stately, long-standing, prototypical, archetypal – hell, even plain old famous will do. Because when everything becomes iconic, nothing is.
Unless it’s super-iconic. Or mega. Or something.