1. Education
Richard Nordquist

Icon, Iconic, and Other Overworked Words

By June 21, 2013

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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.


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 glom 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.


June 23, 2013 at 11:34 am
(1) James Douglas says:

I agree, completely, with M.E. Tuthill’s observations on the overuse of ‘iconic’. I have noticed its appearance increase steadily in the past 2-3 years. In fact, in the UK, 2012 was something of a high point in its occurence – or low point if, like myself, one is so exasperated by its misuse.
The interesting point is the circles in which it appears. I would say I witness its use on the BBC and in certain journals and magazine articles far more than I do in ordinary social situations. It always leaves me with the impression that even on the BBC, there is dearth of creative use of vocabulary, that so many of their staff (or journalists) persist in re-using the same adjective inappropriately. I recall only rarely having heard the word used in the context of religion, art, or more specifically, the two topics overlapping. It is often used to describe a building such as ‘the iconic Shard’ building next to the River Thames which, qualifies as pure misuse because the building a) has hardly existed long enough to warrant such an insinuation of longevity b) has not yet, surely, generated demand for a framed image adorning people’s walls or art collections c) is far more aptly described with other adjectives I won’t record here.

I seem to recall the use of ‘iconic’ being very prevalent during the London 2012 Olympics as well – and to describe an event let alone an image!

I say we campaign to reveal our journalists and presenters as the lazy, fad-following, mal-vocabularists they are!

June 24, 2013 at 3:13 pm
(2) Stan says:

An expression that bugs me;

‘on a go forward basis”

June 24, 2013 at 11:01 pm
(3) pisatel6 says:

How about viral? All viral icons should be inoculated against.

June 26, 2013 at 8:17 am
(4) Douglas D. says:

I started truly detesting the word “iconic” when, a few years ago, Paris Hilton stated: “There’s nobody in the world like me. I think every decade has an iconic blonde including Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana and right now I’m that icon.”

July 3, 2013 at 4:33 pm
(5) G.E. Hoostal says:

Icons are not just Russian but from lots of countries, for example Byzantium, Greece, Egypt. They are from the Orthodox (Catholic) churches, but having them is inherited from synogogues, which had them in ancient times & have been uncovered occasionally in archaeology. St. Luke was the first Christian iconographer. There are 2 groups of Orthodox now, Eastern & Oriental. The former (which I am in) is the second largest, after the Roman Catholic, communion in the world, & despite all the nationalities, is for everyone in the world. (^_^) The Roman Catholics were once Orthodox too, but, as far as the Orthodox see it, left in the 11th c., wanting to use a creed that was somewhat different & wanting to have their patriarch rule all the other patriarchs. You will find icons even in Roman catacombs! The Orthodox understanding of icons is they are windows to heaven & thereby to Christ & the saints in them. Thus kissing the icon is one way we show them love (not idolatry as is sometimes thought). Of course though abusing the concept of the word ‘icon’ (celebrity worship?) is reprehensible.

August 12, 2013 at 1:15 pm
(6) Larry Feldman says:

The word “iconic” has, indeed, become meaningless. In my search for its true meaning, I sought answers from several online search sources,
only to find that they would hijack my question by converting “iconic” to “ironic” or some other presumably close match in terms either of sound, or arrangement of letters. Isn’t there some effective way of overcoming
this example of the debasement of the English language?

September 1, 2013 at 3:43 pm
(7) Sean Tremblay says:

NPR is one of the worst offenders. If you see me banging my head against my steering wheel on the way to work, it’s undoubtably Zoe Chace’s fault.

September 19, 2013 at 11:45 am
(8) Phil says:

So I take it you’re an iconoclast?

It had to be said.!

November 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm
(9) Melissa says:

A couple of phrases that have sent me ’round the bend…
“that said” and “which begs the question”

December 5, 2013 at 8:17 am
(10) Brian A. Green says:

As a student studying history with aspirations of attaining a PhD in European studies, which includes the history of the Roman Catholic Church, I do and will continue to use the word “Icon” as its relevance to my field is valid.

Incorrect or over usage of any particular word, should not make that word a pariah or nullify its importance within the English language.

December 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm
(11) Gary Houston says:

I found this site after failing to find one showing that Geoffrey Nunberg had written something about “icon” and “iconic.” Thank you for running this. The provenance of slang doesn’t nearly fascinate me as much as the rising vogue of standard words, although along with fascination comes annoyance, as with your writer. When I wrote an article not so much on the misuse of “unique” as the overuse of it I felt I had to get at whatever that overuse said about our society at that time, which was the early ’90s. Linguists and sociologists hopefully will get together and pinpoint what goes on when an innocent, humble word all the while sitting on the bench suddenly becomes a star quarterback.

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