An iconic plague

Sue Ferguson

For a tribe that prides itself on being laconic,

it’s ironic that the word iconic

could appear so frequently

with nary a hint of wit sardonic.

It’s downright moronic.

2008 was an iconic year – at least for regular readers of the newspaper. How so? Barely a day went by without some almost certainly overworked and underpaid scribe declaring any manner of animal, mineral or vegetable “iconic.” Bears, cars, costumes, even tomatoes bore the weight of this hefty modifier.

I-word sightings in the streams of black-and-white ink devoured at the breakfast table became my favourite past-time, more fun than puzzling over the cryptic or reading yet another doom-and-gloom report about our sorry economy.

There was Harley-Davidson’s iconic Springer (gotta assume that’s the one the Hell’s Angels ride); Time magazine’s iconic covers (which ones?); and Hasbro’s iconic square tiles (er, that would be the wooden Scrabble tiles). And then there are those iconic things that, well, aren’t really things at all. Like the “iconic brand intellectual property” (to be fair, the writer was quoting someone – though I would have spared my source the embarrassment); or the “iconic world-class office complex” that will be built (get it? It’s iconicism precedes it!); and of course, the “less-than-iconic” (isn’t everything?) venue, a Chinese Olympic stadium built for athletes, not audiences.

It didn’t take long for iconic-hunting to shift from a mildly amusing pastime into a raging pet peeve. Just how derivative are journalists? I wondered. Was I only now awakening to something that has always been thus? I kept wondering. Until exam time, when looking for anything to avoid the monotony of grading, I turned to my computer, and punched those six irksome letters into the search engine of the Canadian Newsstand database. Et voila!

My findings: Jul. 1 to Aug. 1, 2008, the word iconic appears in 667 stories (some small percentage of these would be the same story appearing in more than one publication).

Over the same month ten years earlier, guess how many stories the search engine culled. Five hundred? Two hundred? Fifty? No. Nine. Just nine. Hmmm.

And ponder this: In 2008, the word pops up in all sorts of papers – big and small, metropolitan and small-town. Of the nine 1998 stories, however, eight are from The Globe and Mail. This can only mean one thing. The writers at the Globe have infected the entire Canadian news media with the iconic virus, and now we have an outbreak of sizeable proportions. We are currently in the midst, I submit, of an epidemic – an iconic epidemic. (And an educated guess would trace the outbreak back to The New York Times – compulsory reading for all acting and aspiring Globe journalists. Note to self: search Lexis Nexis next grading season.)

So, one naturally asks, was the usage the same in 1998 as 2008? Was what was iconic then, iconic now? I think so. Both database samplings included references to architectural features, people and – most prominently, especially in 2008 – brand names. They both used the adjective to describe intangibles as well as tangibles. To offer a taste of the usage in the early days of the infection, we have a movie role (Anne Heche’s role in Psycho); an author (Pierre Berton); a cultural place (the role of salmon in B.C. culture); a band (the Beatles, bien sur); a purse (Herme’s Kelly bag); and an image (the political songwriter image, that is, of Woody Guthrie).

I sort of understand the adjective where the Beatles and Berton are concerned, even if the application is not inspired. But my sympathy ends there. 1998 also offers up arguably the most ridiculous sighting. This from a Globe obit for cellist Jacqueline du Pré: “Her identification with the Elgar concerto, that ‘swan song of rare and vanishing beauty’ has become iconic.” I beg your pardon? An iconic identification?

If I were really serious about pursuing this, and didn’t have all these papers to grade, I’d look into brand-name iconicisms more carefully. I’m suspicious that the wet dream of marketers – that their company’s product (or at least their logo) achieve the status of an icon – has insinuated itself into journalist-ese. Maybe those marketers really do engage in thought control.

So, how should we use the word iconic? I’m no expert but it seems to me that iconic should modify only those things that are, well, like an icon. And icons – if they’re not the little symbol on your computer screen – are images or statues that inspire reverence. According to the first definition of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, an icon is “a devotional painting of Christ or another holy figure, typically on wood, venerated in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches.” The second definition – “A person regarded with particular admiration or as a representative symbol” – while admittedly less reverential, retains the qualification that icons are to be particularly admired.

I don’t know, but I reserve my admiration for things that matter, not game tiles or purses.

But the larger point, one that can’t be taken from a dictionary definition, is this: if everything is iconic, then, of course, nothing truly is. And language ceases to matter.

Sue Ferguson teaches journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University – Brantford Campus. Her research focuses on both the news media and children, and children’s media and culture. Prior to joining WLU-Brantford, she worked as an editor and writer at
Maclean’s magazine.