Thursday, November 15, 2007

An Iconic Idea

Apropos of nothing in particular, take a gander at the following tease for an article in today's CNN/
Private equity firms and REITs may be charging into commercial real estate, but these multigenerational clans still control huge chunks of New York City's iconic skyline.
So what's with "iconic," the second last word in the sentence? What's the deal here?

"Iconic" is defined at (initial entry) as:
Of, relating to, or having the character of an icon.
Which I always like in a dictionary entry because it means you have to spend time looking up another word.

The second definition here is:
Having a conventional formulaic style. Used of certain memorial statues and busts.
Okay. "Icon," which is defined for you if you follow the above link, has several possible definitions, one of which was the sense in which I understood the word when I was younger—as a noun describing an ancient or revered (presumably traditional Christian or Eastern Orthodox) portrait of a major figure, often the Blessed Virgin Mary. Alternatively, the word came to describe objects on a desktop computer screen, as well as delineating a widely-known symbol, such as the White House (except when George Bush is in it, of course).

I suppose the latter covers the way the word is used in the CNN/Money blurb, but at best the usage here is imprecise. The NYC skyline might have approached being "iconic" when, sadly, the WTC twin towers were still a part of it. While the skyline is still recognizable, it's no longer distinctive in that sense, except maybe for oldsters who do remember the skyline when the Empire State Building was king of the hill or at least of Manhattan. Tragically, there's now nothing very distinctive about the skyline that causes instant recognition by non-New Yorkers, save for the enormous amount of very large buildings.

But we belabor the point. "Iconic" is now used to describe flavors of ice cream, business leaders, 3rd rate entertainers with weird hair, etc. It's the word writers seem to pull out when they need cheap hyperbole and don't want to make the effort to find something more creative.

In other words, "iconic" has turned into a new cliché, something you pull out and put in when you're brain dead. Used correctly and infrequently, it's still capable of being striking and effective. While I'm a classical music fan, for example, I could still buy Elvis' sequined white jumpsuit as being "iconic." But not Madonna's sleazy underwear. You get the picture.

Bottom line: "iconic" has turned into the cliché of the decade for lazy writers who'd rather lard on undeserved hype rather than describe something colorfully but accurately. There are bloody few things that are really "iconic" (like a Zippo lighter as opposed to a Bic). Let's please limit this word to describing such people, objects, or (perish the thought) religious artifacts. And maybe in computer geek talk where it has acquired an entirely different meaning. But, like other revered objects, let's pull it out infrequently and only when the occasion warrents.



Anonymous said...

I blame Scott Boras.

Anonymous said...

If one is Masonic
One finds the iconic
By taking the Taconic
And the Hutch' (subsonic).

Another bad rhyme from
Bad Rhymes, Inc.
Everything but the kitchen sink.

Pier 18

Wonker said...

Dear Pier--

Are you secretly Busta Rimes? Just asking...