Editors who are fond of listing overused words to avoid in their submission guidelines or in memos to staff members should add iconic to their lists, a term that has replaced famous, well-known, and popular in the vocabulary of many journalists. With some authors, it has become the adjective of choice, to be used to describe any person, place, or thing.
To one writer in the July issue of The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, The Beverly Hillbillies was an iconic TV series and to another Coney Island an iconic locale. The following month the yellow box of Cheerios was granted iconic status.
The June Country Living saluted iconic country chairs. National Wildlife exalted bighorn sheep to a lofty perch in the July/August issue, proclaiming them “iconic in the American West.” Hemi and fuel injection engines rumbled into iconic territory in the August Hemmings Classic Car. Black-and-white photographs in Elizabeth Taylor’s Bel-Air home became iconic in the July Architectural Digest. Condé Nast Traveler pronounced five health rituals as iconic in June and ditto for the savanna surroundings of an African tree in September.
It is easy to understand how magazines that focus on traveling to historic sites and faraway countries can fall into the “anything that used to do, icon does better” refrain. Icon or iconic appears at least four times in the September Travel + Leisure. One unstated benefit of visiting the Caribbean Island hideaway touted in that issue is that the few shops to be found on Nevis sell “mostly necessities” like pimple cream and hair mayonnaise, both decidedly not iconic.
In the September/October Audubon the spoon-billed sandpiper is declared an iconic bird apparently because its population has diminished significantly in the last thirty years.
At one time writers in Motor Trend might have described a trial run of a new Wrangler as a “tough test for a tough Jeep.” Not in these iconic times. In the October issue only “iconic vehicle takes on an iconic trail” will do.
One clear indication that a word is being misapplied or overused in print is when it leaps off the page at the reader like a flickering neon light. The July 20th issue of Antique Trader suggests that a “store’s services and its involved owner…have become iconic within the Alameda community,” leading one to believe that iconibility somehow stops at the city limits. Iconic is found three times in the first four pages of a gushing profile of Russell Simmons in the July American Art Collector. When a word appears more frequently in an article than things and people, it has lost its place as a precise modifier and is in danger of becoming a meaningless term like cool and awesome which are currently applied promiscuously to anything in the universe from black holes to Black Eyed Peas.
Regarding the fulfillment of Andy Warhol’s prediction that everyone will become world-famous for fifteen minutes, I can wait. Unfortunately, icon can’t.