Monday, July 20, 2009

Icons Are Not What They Used To Be

I'm always fascinated by the misuse of the English language in our culture. One of the most misused words in pop culture today is the word "literally." I watched a show on MTV yesterday in which a couple of goofballs went over a waterfall in a canoe. One of them proclaimed, "It killed us, literally." Oh yeah? Well how are you standing there talking?

Here is an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal regarding the misuse of another word in our culture: "Icon."

Right after Roger Federer won his 15th Grand Slam at Wimbledon this month, Pete Sampras declared, "The guy is a legend; now he's an icon." In his eyes, this was a status upgrade. Shortly after that, In Touch magazine referred to both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett as felled icons. People and Time chimed in. None of the big guns seemed prepared to award Ed McMahon official iconic status, but loads of other smaller media outlets did.

Other icons were on the way. Karl Malden, star of both "On the Waterfront" and "The Streets of San Francisco," was widely described as a screen and a television icon. Last week, Drake Levin of the harmless '60s pop combo Paul Revere & the Raiders passed away. Sure enough, reports immediately came in that a guitar icon from an iconic group was no longer here to be iconographic.

Icons are increasingly hard to avoid. Last month I attended a funeral at which a mourner referred to the deceased as a local icon. While visiting Dublin in June, I found myself dining with a Scottish author of terrifying murder mysteries who described herself as "an international cultural icon." I also read in the press that McDonald's was an iconic franchise. Then I got an email announcing that Creative Artists Agency had just added Greg Norman to its roster of clients. That is, Greg Norman, "international golf icon."

[Farrah Fawcett]
Associated Press

Farrah Fawcett

The term "icon" has two basic meanings, neither of which apply to Michael Jackson, Greg Norman, Ed McMahon, most Scottish mystery writers or anyone from Paul Revere & the Raiders. Originally it referred to sacred images painted on tiny wooden panels back in the days of the Eastern Empire. Thus, in theory, Farrah Fawcett's famous '70s poster could vaguely qualify as an icon. But for the longest time the word "icon" was used to refer to what Webster's describes as "an object of uncritical devotion." No more. Today it is used to describe anyone reasonably famous who is completely over the hill, on a respirator, or stone dead. Or, in the case of Mickey D's, beloved but inanimate.

For a number of reasons, the term "icon" cannot be used the way it is currently being tossed about. If your nickname is Wacko Jacko, if you have forked over tens of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits in which you were accused of child abuse, the term "icon" is probably not le mot juste. "Iconic" carries with it a subtext of moral elegance. It is not interchangeable with "famous" or "powerful" or even "brilliant." This is why Henry VIII, Attila the Hun, Oliver Cromwell and Satan are rarely described as "iconic." They were interesting chaps, they put a lot of points on the scoreboard, and they changed the world forever. But iconic? No.

To qualify as an iconic sportsman, you have to be a persistent winner. Greg Norman -- one of the most prodigious choke artists in history, most famous for blowing a five-stroke final-round lead in the 1996 Masters -- doesn't qualify. Alone among these athletes Federer can legitimately be described as an icon. But if Federer was, as Sampras seems to believe, already a legend, why would he then want to be an icon? Being a legend gives you an aura of romance and mystery like Satchel Paige or Jack Dempsey; being an icon simply puts you in the same weight class as a guitarist from Paul Revere & the Raiders. It's like being a sun and then getting recategorized as a moon. It's a downgrade.

The word "icon" has now replaced "superstar" whenever someone wants to describe a talented person who died too soon. But even here it is used incorrectly. Drake Levin was never sufficiently famous to be described as a star or a superstar, much less an icon or a legend. He was never a household name like Walter Cronkite, an obvious, indisputable icon. Being a has-been doesn't make you an icon or a legend; it makes you Drake Levin.

This is just another case of hyperventilating journalists hijacking an otherwise admirable language because they are desperate to insert an infectious banality into their work and don't care if it belongs there. There is no such thing as "the mother of all stimulus packages." One cannot go in search of the Holy Grail of killer apps for the iPhone. The English language doesn't work that way. It's flexible, but it's not stupid.

Mr. Queenan is the author of numerous books, most recently the memoir "Closing Time" (Viking, 2009).


Red July 20, 2009 at 1:03 PM  

My new favorite phrase,"infectious banality". Thank you ;-)_

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This blog is about my opinions and world view.  I am a conservative, evangelical Christian.  Generally speaking, if you post a comment, I'll allow you to express your view.  However, if you say something hateful, untruthful, or just generally something I don't like, I may remove it.

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