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A few words about ‘iconic’

This is an icon. So is Kim Kardashian, but . . . really? Photo by British Library on Unsplash

It seems like everything is iconic. Classic movies, popular foods, well-known buildings. Is it famous? Call it “iconic.” It may not possess the “distinctive excellence” in Merriam-Webster‘s definition, but a lot of people have heard about it so go ahead and get iconic.

Seriously, though, please don’t. This word has become such a cliche, its true meaning has become . . . well, meaningless.

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces its history back to the 1650s, when it simply meant:

“of or pertaining to a portrait,” from Late Latin iconicus, from Greek eikonikos “pertaining to an image,” from eikon “likeness, image, portrait” (see icon). In art, applied to statues of victorious athletes, sovereigns, etc., 1801.”

Words change over time; I get it. I’m not one of those by-the-book language cops who throws the book at anyone deviating from the original definition of a word.  But even by modern usage, “iconic” has simply become a lazy way of simply calling something famous or popular.

I’m certainly not the first to get irate about “iconic.” In 2016, Washingtonian Senior Managing Editor Bill O’Sullivan inducted it into his Loathsome Word Hall of Fame, and his piece cited a similar complaint by MSNBC’s Timothy Noah in 2013. Google “iconic overused” and you’ll get plenty of other examples. Writers have pointed out that its meaning has been diluted so that it no longer signifies distinction at the highest level. When the same word can be used to describe the Eiffel Tower and memorable quotes by Kim Kardashian – well, it’s time to take action.

Please, stop.

There are plenty of alternatives to the word. Try these from MacMillan Thesaurus:

  • Famous
  • Renowned
  • Notorious
  • The one and only
  • Well-known
  • Fabled
  • Infamous
  • Celebrated
  • Legendary
  • Illustrious

When you feel yourself tempted to call something “iconic,” ask yourself if it really deserves to be granted such status. Then, in the interest of simple variety, find another word.