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Friday, January 31, 2014

Throwing over "iconic"

An avid Wordlady reader has asked me to do something to stop the overuse of the words "icon" and "iconic". (For the history of these words, see this post.)

Which is a shame, because I want to invite you all to see two truly iconic ballet companies and some iconic dance works on my ballet trip to New York in May (click here for more details).

It is true that this hyperbolic use is getting out of hand, as you can see in the chart at the end of this post (click here if you can't see it), but hyperbole seems to be the way of the world. If it's any consolation, you can see that "icon" seems to have peaked, though "iconic" continues its steady march upward. As hyperbolic words are overused, they lose their force, and then we have to look for something else to overuse.

The OED dates this new sense development of "icon" to 1952:

A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect.
1952   C. S. Holmes in Pacific Spectator Spring 248/2   ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’, the work of a high-spirited young man turning a critical eye upon a national icon, satirically fabulizes the American Mr. Moneybags.
1975   Business Week (Nexis) 12 May 74   A large number of freshmen Congressmen sympathetic to knocking down institutional icons such as the ICC and CAB.

and of "iconic" to 1976:

Designating a person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement; important or influential in a particular (cultural) context. 
1976   Newsweek 23 Feb. 59/3   His long-distance picture of Robert Smithson's iconic ‘Spiral Jetty’, with the artist seen as a speck walking along the top of an arch of his own work, is the finest example of its kind.

The ngram chart does show the beginning of the upward trend in the mid-70s.

You are perhaps wondering why a word that means "exaggeration" (hyperbole) is so similar to one that you learned in math class to describe this:
 They both come from a Greek word meaning "excess", from hyper (over) and ballein (to throw). Doubtless my "icon(ic)"-hating correspondent would like these words to be thrown over, but unfortunately that is not in Wordlady's power (although she's certainly no fan of mindless hyperbole).

While we're on the subject of exaggerating, you may also be interested to know that this word comes from the Latin word agger (heap) and originally meant literally "heap or pile up".  Whatever kind of heap or pile you think of when next you hear or see the word "icon(ic)" is of course up to you.

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  1. I think that what happens is that some people learn a new word (to them) and then want to show how educated they are by using it (or overusing it)


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.