Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Reclaiming the icon

For a long time I have been teetering on the edge of mildly exploding (is that both an oxymoron and a mixed metaphor in one sentence? Ace!) about the popular use of the words 'icon' and 'iconic' as in 'Albert Einstein was an icon of the scientific age,' or 'this is an iconic song.'

According to my dictionary this usage of a word that previously applied to a religious painting seems to have emerged around the 1950s. But the usage should concern an exemplar, something that is representative of the height of a particular culture or movement. So Albert Einstein can indeed be considered an icon, but the same doesn't go for many other uses.

The way 'icon' is employed pretty well daily in the media, particularly on TV and radio, is much weaker. As long as someone or something is faintly well-known, they become an icon. So, for instance, according to The X-Factor, whichever hideous old song is being recycled on the show is an 'iconic song' (or even worse, an 'iconic anthem'). And the particular offending case that started me on this rant - at the weekend I heard Laurence Llewelyn Bowen (yes, I know it's my fault for listening to him) refer to the Schindler's List theme as one of the iconic film scores of the 20th century.

Leaving aside the fact that practically every great film score is from the 20th century (name me a 19th century one, or more than a couple of 21st century ones), this is a dubious statement at best. The Schindler's List theme is very good - I'd probably put it in the top 100 - but for me there should only be a couple of iconic scores that somehow typify the genre, and I'm really not sure that this can be said of this particular piece of music.

I know it's boring when people get on a hobby horse about grammar or punctuation or word usage. I know word usage changes with time. But this one of those examples where there are so many other words essentially meaning 'well-known' or 'rather good' that there really is no need to be so profligate with our icons. Keep your verbal hands (yes! mixing it again) off.

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