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Be careful: icon / iconic

01 Jul
Photo by Sarah

Source: Sarah Gallagher 24.06.13. Street artist unknown, Melbourne

When I posted my last Be Careful! post on the use of decimated, my friend Sarah, New Zealand librarian, asked me if I’d looked at icon/iconic and its overuse. So I invited her to write a post for me, and here is the rather marvellous result!

After vociferously agreeing with a recent blog Liz wrote about the misuse / overuse of the word decimate, I was invited to write a guest blog post about the similarly misused / overused word, icon and the adjective, iconic. We certainly overuse and misuse it in NZ, and hardly surprising, it happens elsewhere to. We have all been doing so for quite sometime. It seems that hardly a day goes by where these words are not used to describe a person, thing or sometimes, a place. In some cases it really has gone well past the point of ridiculousness. Here are a few particularly amusing examples I’ve discovered recently:

Iconic image of pepper sprayed woman becomes icon of resistance
Iconic green caravan … An icon of Tokoroa
Iconic sign gets a makeover
Gene Wilder, icon, and star of iconic Charlie and the chocolate factory film
10 iconic t shirts
The anatomy of an iconic image – I agree, the fashion industry over uses the term. I disagree, Kate Moss is not an icon. Nor is she iconic.
Top 10 political icons

So what do these words actually mean? The OED defines icon as having four meanings, two of which are relevant here: an icon is defined as either, a representation of Christ or a holy figure, or a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration. Meanwhile, iconic refers to something that is representative of an icon, so veneration is applicable here too.
Definition of icon – OED
Definition of iconic – OED

Veneration. Perhaps there is a correlation between the overuse of these words has something to do with our increasing societal secularism. Has anyone considered that? Or maybe it’s aligned with our instinct to hyperbole, or a deficit of other adjectives. It some cases these words have become a device to express the importance or significance of something.

My own understanding of the word icon comes from my background and training as a classicist and specifically as a student of iconography. The study of images, and for my research, specific likenesses, brings with it the need to identity work by style, describing their content, and placing them in a stylistic context. In part this happens by identifying patterns in depiction and symbolism. It’s a world where gestures, colour, pattern, and attributes articulate meaning. In preliterate societies it was these subtleties that allowed artists tell stories, or pass on messages to their audiences, and for the illiterate public to ‘read’ the images (think pictorial shop signs, statues of deities, stained glass windows).

So when I read that someone or something is an “icon” I expect there will be a number of attributes: the object of veneration will represent something of deep meaning to a significant group of people, it will be of sufficient gravitas/ age/ mana (this is a Maori word) to demand respect of even those who do not believe in it themselves. It is something or someone who transcends the ordinary, and is truly representative of e.g., a deity, an explorer, a scientist, an artist, a place of worship, a building, a monument; and who has a belief system, story or legend that is inherent in their being. Iconic seems to have come to mean a symbol or to be representative of. Symbols, logos, emblems and insignia all convey meaning but do they truly, hand on heart, evoke veneration in the way a true icon would?

I’ll close with an example of the Virgin Mary:
Here’s an icon
The modern image that illustrates this piece (see top) is an iconic image
Finally, here is a modern icon

Try this yourself. Run a Google image search on the words icon and iconic and see what results. You might be surprised.

References:

Iconic the adjective of an age
Icon, iconic and other overworked words
Cultural icon
Cultural Icons: A Case Study Analysis of their Formation and Reception

Biography:

Sarah Gallagher is a Medical Librarian based in Dunedin, NZ and holds Masters degrees in Classics and in Library & Information Studies. She’s an early adopter of social media and is interested in how these tools can be used in the GLAM and heath professions. Sarah’s also writing a book about named student flats in Dunedin, an ephemeral print culture.

Sarah’s Tumblr
Sarah on Twitter
Sarah’s official bio page

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