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The staying power of 'iconic'

In 2009, Lake Superior State listed "iconic" on its annual list of words to banish.

The list's authors say it was one of the most-nominated words that year. People calling for its banishment said "iconic" was overused, especially among entertainers and entertainment news.

Bryan Murphy of Fairfield, Connecticut said, "Just because a writer recognizes something does not make it an icon or iconic. It just means that the writer has seen it before."

That may be, but eight years after it was banished, "iconic" is still alive and flourishing in an ever-wider range of contexts.

"Iconic" is borrowed into English from Latin in the 17th century and starts off referring to icons or images or representations. It can have religious references as well.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that by the late 20th century, "iconic" is being used to refer to people or things that are representative of a culture, significant moment or a movement, such as this example from The Independent:

"The conspiracy theories about the assassinations of John F Kennedy and the suicide of Marilyn Monroe all show how persistent this kind of speculation is when an iconic figure dies unexpectedly."

But now in the era of Twitter hashtags, it's safe to say that "iconic" is gaining territory. English Professor Anne Curzan says she hears her students using it quite a bit.

"They'll say, for example, that if you're at your favorite restaurant with your friends you could take a selfie and post it with #iconic to say, 'these are my people and this is where we go,'" Curzan says. "But I also think you see it with anything that's noteworthy or things that are memorable."

A quick search for #iconic on Twitter brings up everything from photos of the late Hugh Hefner to ads for Keds Shoes to selfies taken at birthday parties. 

So we've got to ask, what's iconic to you? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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