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Don't overdo it

May 21, 2011 - Brad Siddons
Maybe it's the weather — yes, I'm sure it's the weather — but I've been downright cranky lately. Just ask my wife. But that's another story. This one's about the word “iconic,” a simple adjective with an equally simple definition that, for some reason, has become quite common in the American spoken language. Not too surprisingly, it gets the most over-usage on television.

Watch “American Pickers” or the network nightly news and you're likely to hear someone drop the “I” bomb just about any time. The list of possibilities is long and growing. I don't know why, and I don't like it. Harrumph!

See, I warned you. Anyway, let's start with a good definition, taken from Webster's II New College Dictionary, Third Edition: Adj. 1. Relating to or like an icon. 2. Having a conventional or formulaic style.

Pretty boring, huh? This just doesn't seem to generate a lot of passion. “Wow, that old milk bottle sure is iconic. I mean, it's got the most formulaic style I've ever seen.”

Hmm. Really exciting stuff.

I guess we have to look first, then, at the definition of the root word, icon. Consider this, taken from the same dictionary:

n. 1 a. An image: representation. b. A representation or picture of a sacred Christian personage, traditional to the Eastern Churches. 2. A simile or symbol. 3. The object of great attention and devotion: IDOL. 4. Computer Sci. A picture on a screen representing a specific file, directory, window, option, or program.

Yes, anyone who uses a computer or a cell phone knows that last definition of icon. Our desktops are covered with (probably too many of) them. But it's the third definition that I'm thinking about tonight. I'll repeat it here for effect: The object of great attention and devotion: IDOL.

Oh yeah, that's the one. Right or wrong, folks in this culture rush to create idols at every turn. Whether it's a sports, movie or music star — REALLY risky these days — or physical examples of better times gone by or past accomplishments. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I suppose. It's the overuse, the oh-too-easy application of that word ICONIC that bothers me.

Use any word too often and for too long and its true meaning is diminished, I believe. Start shouting “How iconic ...” every time you spot a pretty vase from the 1920s, or a talented actor from the 1980s, and soon very little will truly be “iconic.”


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