The iconic misuse of the word “icon”

Didn’t agree much with the late conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, but he was an excellent writer, and I read his weekly “On Language” column in the Times Magazine regularly. I’m sure he’d agree with me that like the words meme and trope, neither of which I know how to use correctly, icon, which hardly anyone else knows how to use correctly, is likewise a good writer’s overworked, and in its case, wrongly used term.

What rankles me so much about “icon”—and by extension, “iconic”—is how it came suddenly out of nowhere and is now inescapable, such that not a day goes by when I don’t get a PR pitch regarding someone or other who’s an icon or iconic, which, presumably, is why I should give a shit. But i don’t, because they’re invariably neither.

It’s so out of hand that last week I got a release titled “Legacy Lounge Brings Suiteness to Iconic Levels at the London West Hollywood.” Okay, I guess “suiteness” is a clever made-up word, or else a play on “sweetness.” Whatever. But whatever the fuck it is, bringing it to “iconic levels” makes no sense at all, that is, “level” singular or plural can’t be made iconic, that is, unless you stretch the meaning of iconic far beyond its traditional usage.

Okay, so what constitutes the use of “iconic”? Simply put, it has to refer to an unmistakable icon. The word usually means “a usually pictorial representation,” that is, image, or “an object of uncritical devotion,” that is, idol (merriam-webster.com).

But the word “idol” has been so watered down (thanks, to finger one culprit, to American Idol), that it’s lost its connotation of singularity. I mean, not everyone is an icon, or an be, unless we’re allowed to worship a lot of idols equally.

Hence, the only real icon in contemporary music who comes readily to mind is Madonna. Of other highly visible current female pop artists, Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, all are surely superstars, even shining much brighter than Madonna now in terms of airplay and sales, but have a very long way to go before ranking with Madonna as a true cultural icon.

As for other female pop artists, Aretha Franklin comes to mind, as she stands by herself and could rightly be considered an icon. Nancy Sinatra really defines the word, what with her signature look based on her signature song (“These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”) and with an iconic career also defined by acting in the Elvis Presley classic Speedway and with Peter Fonda in the pioneering outlaw biker genre film The Wild Angels, her other landmark hits with songwriter Lee Hazlewood, the James Bond movie theme “You Only Lid Twice” and her chart-topping “Something stupid” duet with her father. Obviously her father was a male pop music and acting icon, as was Presley. Iconic actresses who come to mind include Marilyn Monroe, of course, and Bette Davis, since after all, she had a song written about her eyes.

In country music there are several female vocalists who are icons in the genre, namely Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, though Dolly would be the only one with the mainstream pop recognition to ensure her overall icon status. Likewise, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who, incidentally have another duet album just out, are both male vocal country music icons, but only Willie could be considered an icon in general, and he would pale in iconic level—now I’m using that idiotic construct—next to Johnny Cash, who most certainly was iconic any way you look at it.

My point is, the words “icon” and “iconic” should not be applied so freely if they are to retain the required sense of uniqueness. Me? I tend to use “legendary” in reference to any veteran artist with any kind of history, who’s reached a point where at least some kind of “legend” has been established.

7 thoughts on “The iconic misuse of the word “icon”

  • August 27, 2015 at 1:34 pm
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    Just saw two articles — one on Darlene Love, the other on Frank Sinatra — that called them both “icons” and “legends” in the same paragraph. We need a new word!

  • December 29, 2016 at 8:59 pm
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    Human beings are not icons. Christ is the only human icon who ever lived.
    The rest are idols and their veneration is heresy and a shining example of our cultural decadence

  • December 31, 2016 at 4:41 pm
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    Thanks for stopping by…

  • April 10, 2017 at 3:45 am
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    I spend a total of about 10 minutes removing Icon from scripts the past three weeks to be read on television, in reference to the death of Chuck Berry. Icon was replaced by legend.

  • April 10, 2017 at 8:16 am
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    Thanks! It drives me up the iconic wall!

  • February 10, 2018 at 11:18 am
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    The word Iconic has become iconic for “people who are dictionary phobic”.
    Something brand new can not be iconic. The only relief will come when the next word gets appointed to “use until destroyed” status. It’ll happen and none too soon for me. Look at England and their use of the word “Brilliant”. This last political season it was “double down”, “that’s what I’m talking about” when someone wasn’t talking.
    “Mommy! I want to be iconic!!!” |”Quiet, dear. You’ll have to get older first” Then there are, of course, those damn quotation marks”!!!”

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