Just say “recognizable”

Ok so I was reading a story about COVID measures in California and there’s a photo of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco seen between two rows of buildings, with the caption:

California Street, usually filled with iconic cable cars, is seen mostly empty in San Francisco, California on March 17, 2020.

And I was annoyed. Cable cars are not iconic! Neither are movie stars, or shoes, or apartment buildings, or the Space Needle, or the Grand Canyon. “Iconic” is not another word for famous or recognizable or familiar. That’s not what it means.

I know, I know, that is what it means now, because usage is what counts, but it isn’t, and I hate it.

I saw one yesterday that also set me off: it was on an ad for a flashy new apartment building in Seattle, of which some 5 million have been built over the last few years.

As the tallest residential building in Seattle, this iconic tower is home to a collection of ultra luxury apartment residences.

What’s iconic about it?! They don’t say. Here it doesn’t even mean “familiar”; it’s just a fancy word for expensive.

So I was ranting about it and a friend handed me this to keep me quiet for a few minutes:

Can we please give the word “iconic” a rest? These days, you can’t pick up a newspaper, click on some website, turn on a f*%$@* TV without reading about something or someone that is iconic. Once upon a time, the now infernal word (hey, let’s use “infernal” more) was relegated to the lexicon of overzealous art history professors who used words like “musculature” while they groped a Greek sculpture on display at the university art museum. Those were the days.

This is what I’m saying. It was an art history word. It had a particular, narrow meaning, and it didn’t come up more than a couple of times a year. People weren’t running around talking about their iconic new espresso machine or puffa jacket.

Type the word “iconic” into your favorite search engine and voila, nearly 200,000 articles about an “iconic gadget,” “iconic comedian,” “iconic art,” “Jamie Foxx’s iconic thriller,” “iconic summer,” “Madonna’s iconic pose,” “Miami’s iconic hotels,” “England’s iconic chimney stacks.”

How about England’s iconic toilet flusher pulls? Now those are iconic.

Chain pull toilets | Etsy

I’m kidding; they’re not.

Webster’s Dictionary defines iconic:

1. Relating to, resembling, or having the character of an icon or (Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Art Terms) (of memorial sculptures, esp those depicting athletes of ancient Greece) having a fixed conventional style

2. A conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians

To do with an actual, literal icon, in short.

I’m not alone in my revulsion toward “iconic,” either. Even the venerable British tabloid The Telegraph selected “iconic” among their list of “words that should be banned because they have lost their meaning and have become useless.” But that was nearly five years ago, and instead of retiring the word to the rafters, millions of unworthy icons or iconic people have appeared… like locusts. Just watch Inside Edition any day of the week and “follow Miss USA as she fulfills her life-long dream of recreating an iconic scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” followed quickly by Deborah Norville speaking with iconic film producer Harvey Weinstein.”

They don’t call Harvey Weinstein iconic any more, but that’s not because they’ve found out what the word means.

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