The Grammarphobia Blog

Should “iconic” get religion?

Q: Will you do everyone a favor and make your best effort to put to sleep the horribly misused word “iconic”? I grind my teeth when I hear it, and at 63 I would like to keep my teeth as long as possible.

A: You’re not the first person to ask us to try to do something about “iconic.” But you overestimate our powers of influence!

All we can do is write about these things and give our opinions. We couldn’t stem the tides of English even if we wanted to.

Besides, in our estimation “iconic” is being overused rather than misused when seen or heard in its modern secular sense.

In the beginning, the noun “icon” and the adjective “iconic” referred merely to portraits, not to objects of worship. Since the words have evolved in tandem, we’ll review the histories of both.

The noun and the adjective have their source in the Greek eikon (likeness, image, portrait), from the verb eikenai (to seem, to be like, to resemble).

The noun “icon” entered English in the 1500s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

It originally meant simply “an image, figure, or representation; a portrait; a picture, ‘cut,’ or illustration in a book.”

Later in that same century, the word was also used to refer to a solid image, like a statuette.

The word first appeared in English in reference to a small cut or illustration in a book about birds, John Bossewell’s Workes of Armorie (1572): “The Icon, or forme of the same birde, I have caused thus to bee figured.”

As for the adjective, “iconic” got its start in English in the 1600s, when it meant “of or pertaining to an icon, image, figure, or representation; of the nature of a portrait.”

The OED’s first citation in writing for “iconic” is from Thomas Blount’s dictionary Glossographia (1656): “Iconic, belonging to an Image, also lively pictured.”

Not until the 19th century did the English words “icon” and “iconic” come to refer to sacred images used in worship.

The OED’s first citation for this sense of “icon” is from Robert Pinkerton’s book Russia (1833): “Behind them were carried … six censers, and six sacred ikons.”

In the 20th century the words again changed direction.

“Icon” and “iconic” came to be used to refer to people and things that were regarded as symbols, or as representative of a culture or a movement.

The OED’s first citation for this use of “icon” is from Charles S. Holmes, writing in the Pacific Spectator (1952):

“ ‘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.”

And the OED’s first citation for “iconic” used in this way is from a 1976 article in Newsweek:

“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.”

So while we agree that “iconic” is very tired and deserves a rest, we don’t think it’s being used incorrectly. Rather, this nonreligious usage recalls an older, secular meaning of the word. 

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