Byline: Joe Queenan
The other day, I decided to see how long I could go without reading the word “iconic.”
Four minutes. After putting on the teakettle, I opened the newspaper and almost immediately read about the “iconic” Oprah Winfrey. Then I read about an “iconic” Cuban bandleader who, like many other people routinely described as “iconic,” was someone I had never heard of. Such people belong to a class of quasi-celebrities best referred to as “niche icons,” as opposed to universally admired “global icons” like David Beckham, who was referenced thusly in an ad for the Breitling Transocean Chronograph Unitime, a watch the size of Uruguay. Finally, I came across an insert announcing a summer sale at Macy’s. It was the “American Icons” sale.
Opening my email, I eyeballed a promo from the Caramoor Music Festival announcing that the “iconic” Emerson String Quartet would soon be appearing at its grounds. An email from Colston Hall in Bristol, England, invited me to come over and see some “iconic performers” in action this fall. Seconds later, while rooting around my refrigerator for orange juice, I moved a Pepsi bottle aside. On the back label were emblazoned the words “Iconic Summer.”
There was a time in this great nation, not terribly long ago, when people who accomplished remarkable things were described as “heroic” or “fabulous” or even “Numero Uno.” Extraordinary musicians were extolled as “legends” whose concerts were “water-shed events.” Gifted writers were referred to as “pioneers” and “sages” and “trailblazers” whose works were “seminal.” Outstanding athletes were described as “titans,” or “giants” or “colossi.”
Not every remarkable person was described in exactly the same way: Words as varied as “amazing” and “superb” and “fantastic” could also be called upon to honor a spectacular chantoozie or automobile. Some people or institutions–Michael Moore, Merle Haggard, Carol Channing, and the American Museum of Natural History, among others–were even singled out as “national treasures.”
But that was before the invasion of the icons. Today, icons totally dominate the conversational landscape. If you open the newspaper you will see an ad for “iconic hotels in iconic places,” featuring “an iconic footbridge.” You will read about someone having his picture taken in “iconic Malcolm X poses.” You will read that the “iconic” rock band Fleetwood Mac will soon be playing at Madison Square Garden, itself an icon of rare iconicity.
Meanwhile, on iconic Broadway, in the very heart of iconic Times Square, iconic sixties band The Rascals took up temporary residence at the iconic Richard Rodgers Theatre. For those of a slightly more Methuselahn frame of mind, the iconic Pete Seeger will be giving a concert in some iconic coffeehouse, playing iconic Woody Guthrie songs. And yes, he will be playing that most iconic of instruments, the five-stringed banjo.
The fault for this tidal wave of knee-jerk, bootlicking, just-add-water hyperbole lies partly with advertising agencies, but mostly with the press. Journalists, born sycophants and copycats, maintain an internal checklist of top-shelf cliches they desperately attempt to shoehorn into their stories, because using industrial-strength banalities makes them feel more like Thomas L. Friedman.
They feel a professional imperative to describe the snail darter as “the poster child for endangered species.” They never get tired of telling readers that “the center cannot hold,” as if that were the only thing William Butler Yeats ever said. They can never resist paying homage to those who “think outside the box.” And at some point, they simply must insert the words “preternatural,” “quintessential,” or “Ouch!” into their otherwise antiseptic articles. Otherwise, they feel like rank amateurs.
Until they receive an official directive from the League of Flatulence’s Central Planning Committee authorizing them to stop using such extinct banalities as “style over substance” or “happy camper,” they will strangle the life out of these steaming balls of piffle. There is no horse too dead for them to beat as long as a lot of other journalists are beating it simultaneously. It is as if the entire profession has been sent out on a search-and-destroy mission, and the target is the English language itself. Write no story that does not bristle with empty phrases, hollow sentiments, shopworn bromides, and time-honored cliches. And at all costs, make sure you get the word “icon” in there somewhere.
Journalists use the word “iconic” to describe everything. They use to it to describe magazines (Sports Illustrated, Time, Spy). They use it to describe golf courses (Pebble Beach, Augusta National, St. Andrews). They use it to describe TV shows (Tonight), hosts of TV shows (Jay Leno, Johnny Carson), and characters in TV shows (Don Draper in Mad Men). Left unchecked, they will even use it to describe Betty White. They use it to describe singers, movie stars, quarterbacks, personal computers, automobiles, pieces of legislation, gardens, even sandwiches. And when they themselves are not using it, they quote somebody else using it.
“I always saw her as kind of iconic,” a woman says of her friend Kylie Minogue, the very definition of that non-iconic entertainer, the niche icon. What kind of food can one expect to be served in the new restaurant that perches high atop Freedom Tower (aka One World Trade Center) in Lower Manhattan? “Iconic fare,” says the guy who will be running the place.
According to Webster’s, the word “iconic” means “an object of uncritical devotion.” It is a word that can reasonably be used to describe people like Winston Churchill, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Charlemagne, bands like Duke Ellington’s and Led Zeppelin, and, stretched to its very limit, objects like the iPod or the Gibson Les Paul or the AK-47.
It cannot be used to describe synthetic fabrics, secondary characters in cable TV programs, piquant beverages, dated hairstyles, or Weezer. There is no such thing as an iconic ocean, an iconic dessert, or an iconic search engine. Iconic fruits do not exist on this planet. Nor do iconic cordials. There is no conceivable set of circumstances in which the words “iconic” and “Lionel Richie” can be joined. The English language has strict rules about this.
It is often said that before things get better, they must get worse. Well, things are getting worse. Set loose among the pugnaciously brainless, the word “iconic” has wandered so far from its etymological moorings that it is now being used to describe, literally, anything: gelato, toys, headgear, pajamas. Small, down-at-the-heels New York municipalities.
Yes, not long ago, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, New York, Mayor Mary Foster actually said, “This is iconic Peekskill.”
This stuff has got to stop.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.