In his book The Language Wars: A History of Proper English (2011), Henry Hitchings says that "All of us, besides using language, comment on it, and we complain about others' usage far more often than we applaud it. Where language is concerned, some are engineers, but more of us are doctors."
Over the past six months, in response to our request at 100 Words and Phrases That Ticked You Off in 2012, many of you have been playing doctor with the English language, diagnosing all sorts of ailments, infelicities, and barbarisms.
Here's just one example. Writer and poet M.E. Tuthill has grown fed up with the abuse and overuse of the words icon and iconic--so fed up that she was inspired to write this essay and generous enough to share it with us.
ICON'T STAND IT!
Do you remember a time when no one used the words "icon" or "iconic"? I do. It really wasn't that long ago.
At first it was a trickle. Every few days I would see either word in the paper. It got on my nerves. Then I began to hear it on TV. It got to the point where I wanted to write down how many times a week I saw or heard the word "icon" or "iconic." But I never did. Whenever I fail to write a list of things that irk me I consider it a healthy thing. As in I have better things to do with my time. I alerted my husband to this phenomenon and he, too, was on the lookout for "icon" and "iconic." Now if it comes up and we happen to be in the same room, we just exchange knowing glances. It has gone far beyond talking about it.
Every time I hear someone say "icon" or "iconic" it bothers me. How could we as a society glob on to words like this? How could no one notice that these two words have injected themselves into our daily discourse to such an extent that what was once a trickle is now a tidal wave and it isn't once or twice a week that I either hear or read these words, it is at least once or twice a day.
Am I the only person troubled by the onslaught of these words that were once relegated to a Russian religious image or a symbol on a computer screen? What would a linguist say of this occurrence?
Just as I write this sentence I have arrived from a trip to Yahoo where the headline reads "Family from Iconic Tornado Photo Speaks." What tornado photo is not iconic?
"Icon" and "iconic" are akin to an infestation. Their over usage is so apparent that they no longer have any meaning at all. They are numbing in their ability to reduce truly exceptional people and events to throwaway words that roll off the tongue with abandon.
A cursory search of The Boston Globe archives found "icon" was used 3,410 times between 1980 and 2000. From 2000 to 2013 it was used 6,674 times; almost double. Meanwhile the word "iconic" was used 161 times between 1980 and 2000. That number jumped to 2,976 between 2000 and 2013!
These words would more than qualify as "vogue words." Richard Nordquist describes vogue words as fashionable words that lose their effectiveness through overuse. Quoting Jacques Barzun, he writes on About.com Grammar & Composition, that the "best way to offset the harm of 'vogues' is to stick resolutely, in speech and writing, to each vogue word's central meaning."
I suppose technically according to Merriam-Webster's definition every conceivable image on the internet is an icon as it is defined as a pictorial "image." There is no mention of an icon being a person of note in a particular field. So let's junk that for starters!
Same deal with iconic, which has a remarkably similar definition as icon. So, again, let's ditch it when describing a person. I don't have the intestinal fortitude to scour the internet, newspapers and TV reports and programs to gingerly extract these words from wherever they appear and determine whether or not the context strays from the "central meaning." All I can ask is to end the madness and stop using "icon" and "iconic" because ICON'T STAND IT!
To see the long list of verbal pet peeves submitted by other readers over the past six months, visit 100 Words and Phrases That Ticked You Off in 2012. And if you'd like to contribute an annoying expression to this year's list, simply click on "comments" below.