At the end of December (2013), BBC News Magazine published a list of 20 of 2013’s most overused words. “Some of these terms have markedly peaked in 2013,” said the article by Vanessa Barford. “Others are post-millennial perennials that still seem to be growing.”
The latter is definitely the case with “iconic,” which is #20 on the list.
The BBC mag provides a definition as “a person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement” and notes that iconic and its root (icon) used to be used primarily in a religious context.
And, I would add, in a visual context. But now it’s everywhere – and has been for some time.
Barford noted that in June last year, writer and poet M.E. Tuthill searched the archives of the Boston Globe and found “iconic” used 161 times between 1980 and 2000, but 2,976 times between 2000 and 2013.
My teeth started to itch when I heard, on our own beloved CBC Radio, a song described as “iconic.” But an icon is an image (“iconic” comes from the Greek eikon, which refers to a small painting) and shouldn’t “iconic” therefore refer to only something visual? In which case, a song would be, maybe, “anthemic”?
So I put the question to an expert — Mignon Fogary, aka Grammar Girl. Ashley Dodge, an assistant to Mignon Fogarty (aka), replied in an email agreeing, but adding, “Language does change over time, and perhaps is why ‘iconic’ is being used for not visual things.”
Still, this puts me in mind of the use of “clear as bell,” an auditory reference, to refer to visual clarity (“I could see it, clear as a bell”).
Whatever. Enough “iconic” already!~TM