The Magazine

I Like Icon

But I’m getting a little weary of the adjective.

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Journalists use the word “iconic” to describe everything. They use to it to describe magazines (Sports Illustrated, Time, Spy). They use it to describe golf courses (Pebble Beach, Augusta National, St. Andrews). They use it to describe TV shows (Tonight), hosts of TV shows (Jay Leno, Johnny Carson), and characters in TV shows (Don Draper in Mad Men). Left unchecked, they will even use it to describe Betty White. They use it to describe singers, movie stars, quarterbacks, personal computers, automobiles, pieces of legislation, gardens, even sandwiches. And when they themselves are not using it, they quote somebody else using it.

“I always saw her as kind of iconic,” a woman says of her friend Kylie Minogue, the very definition of that non-iconic entertainer, the niche icon. What kind of food can one expect to be served in the new restaurant that perches high atop Freedom Tower (aka One World Trade Center) in Lower Manhattan? “Iconic fare,” says the guy who will be running the place.

According to Webster’s, the word “iconic” means “an object of uncritical devotion.” It is a word that can reasonably be used to describe people like Winston Churchill, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Charlemagne, bands like Duke Ellington’s and Led Zeppelin, and, stretched to its very limit, objects like the iPod or the Gibson Les Paul or the AK-47. 

It cannot be used to describe synthetic fabrics, secondary characters in cable TV programs, piquant beverages, dated hairstyles, or Weezer. There is no such thing as an iconic ocean, an iconic dessert, or an iconic search engine. Iconic fruits do not exist on this planet. Nor do iconic cordials. There is no conceivable set of circumstances in which the words “iconic” and “Lionel Richie” can be joined. The English language has strict rules about this.

It is often said that before things get better, they must get worse. Well, things are getting worse. Set loose among the pugnaciously brainless, the word “iconic” has wandered so far from its etymological moorings that it is now being used to describe, literally, anything: gelato, toys, headgear, pajamas. Small, down-at-the-heels New York municipalities. 

Yes, not long ago, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, New York, Mayor Mary Foster actually said, “This is iconic Peekskill.”

Iconic Peekskill.

This stuff has got to stop.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.

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