In these waning days of 2013, extinction is being proposed for certain overused words and phrases. The New York Times’ Timothy Egan urges elimination of “artisan,” “brand,” and “end of the day.” The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Zimmer adds “cronut,” “twerk,” and “lean in.” Bloomberg’s Christopher Flavelle names “skin in the game” the reigning cliché of 2013, though surely “pivot,” “optics,” and “inflection point” gave it a run for its money.
But the usages that truly corrupt mind and heart aren’t the ones that arrive abruptly, inspire a brief fad, then soon wear themselves out, like “groovy” and “netiquette.” The bad words are the ones that tiptoe into the vernacular, burrow in, and refuse to go away. These are words not to mock but to fear because they don’t stop merely at making us sound just a little bit silly for a brief span of time. They make us objectively poorer in spirit: weaker, dumber, and easier prey for dark forces that would topple great civilizations.
I’m thinking, specifically, of the word “icon.”
“Icon” is a perfectly acceptable word when used, according to its traditional definition, to denote a religious painting in the Byzantine or other Eastern Christian manner. “Icon” is also a reasonable term to denote a pictogram on a computer screen (in keeping with the word’s original Greek meaning of “likeness” or “image”).
The trouble begins when the term is used to describe a person or object’s importance in contemporary culture. Bill Gates is an icon. So is Bob Dylan. So is the Guinness Book of World Records. Elvis Presley is an icon. Does that mean “icon” denotes anything that’s really great, and is widely recognized as such? Not exactly. Hitler is an icon. Campbell’s Soup was iconic even before the iconic pop artist Andy Warhol turned it into art. (The absurd American veneration of a mass-produced item is what made the paintings trenchant.) Murderers can be iconic: Lee Harvey Oswald, Lizzie Borden. The photograph of Jack Ruby killing Oswald is iconic. So is Robert Capa’s photograph,“The Falling Soldier,” depicting a loyalist militiaman getting shot during the Spanish Civil War. Once, seeing a copy hanging on the wall of a fashionable residence in London, I registered revulsion that anyone could possibly regard it as decoration. But it was an icon! Later, evidence emerged that the photograph might have been staged. It remained an icon.
In its cultural usage, “iconic” essentially means “really famous,” which raises the question: Why don’t we just say, “really famous”? Because “iconic” also confers some vague, vestigial suggestion, borrowed from the word’s religious usage, of virtue. The term’s application to popular culture was initially intended to mock (look how these foolish Americans venerate the Campbell’s Soup can!), but the irony wore off quickly and the equation of fame with virtue was soon taken at face value. Today, otherwise intelligent people will say that something or someone is an icon and think they’re bestowing meaningful praise. What they’re really saying, though, is: “That person or thing is famous, and it’s good to be famous.”
Reality television is perhaps our culture’s most obvious manifestation of the “icon” ethic. Phil Robertson got rich selling duck-hunting merchandise, and in an earlier time he might have been put on TV to demonstrate, or celebrate, or enlighten the public about, this particular sport. But in our present era of icon-mindedness he’s instead put on TV to play the backwoods minstrel, re-enacting a more crude version of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” When Robertson gets caught saying offensive things about gays and African Americans to GQ, or talking up the merits of marrying teenage girls, his TV network (the once-hifalutin’ A&E) ties itself up comically in knots trying to decide whether to punish him for insensitivity or reward him for authenticity. He’s a bigot, and that’s bad; but he’s really a bigot, not just pretending to be one on TV, and that’s good! Although if the whole thing turned out to be an act, that wouldn’t necessarily rob Robertson of iconic status, provided the public continued to find the act sufficiently entertaining. Nobody seriously thinks John Wayne won the west—nor did Wayne ever perform even a day’s worth of military service. But they named an airport in Orange County after him anyway, because … well, he’s an icon. Never mind the guys who really stormed the sands of Iwo Jima. They weren’t icons; they were just brave soldiers nobody ever heard of.
The malign confusion created by the word “icon,” when used to describe cultural phenomena, becomes readily apparent when you try to look the word up in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster, for instance, leads with the literal definition (“image), and then the traditional (“religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel”). Then things get confusing. The third definition is “an object of uncritical devotion,” which is pretty good, but is “uncritical” here meant to be pejorative? The suggestion of “idol” as a synonym would indicate that it is, given “idol”’s traditional association with the worship of false gods. But definition four is the more neutral “emblem, symbol,” as in “the house became an icon of 1960s residential architecture” (Paul Goldberger). Maybe it would help if we knew which house Goldberger was talking about; if it really became the template for 1960s residential architecture, there’s a good chance it was pretty hideous.
Apart from being morally neutral, fame is typically, especially in the current age, fleeting. “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” Warhol famously said. But icons aren’t fleeting; this tradition of religious painting dates back at least to the 2nd century A.D., and some icons still survive that date back to the 6th century. Hence another corrupting function in labeling “iconic” what is merely famous: It flatters the famous by suggesting that their deeds shall ring down through the ages, when in all likelihood they won’t. It attempts to lend weight to a phenomenon—fame–that’s inherently weightless. It bestows hubris on the current culture’s priorities by declaring them eternal, which any casual student of history knows can’t possibly be true.
Vanity, thy name is icon. Let’s please discard this foolish term of praise, while we’re still able to grasp that there’s much more to life than being, or not being, famous.