What is an icon anyway?

Writers use the words “icon” and “iconic” much more often today than when I entered the newspaper business almost 30 years ago. I suppose “icon” became more widespread when computer makers used it to describe the on-screen symbols associated with programs. But now the word refers often, as the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary defines it, to a person or a thing “revered or idolized.” The dictionary uses as an example “a pop icon.” That seems to be the usage that the headline writer meant in the headline on a story about the Bob Dylan-Willie Nelson concert June 12 (published June 13): Music icons play Zebulon. And that is exactly what a writer referred to in this sentence from a June 17 story: Sportscasters could also appeal to the youth culture by inviting pop icons into the booth.

An aside: Dictionaries are “descriptive,” not “prescriptive.” That is, dictionaries describe and define words as they are used in English, not as some experts would prescribe that they be used. And I am not writing here to prescribe that “icon” be used only in certain ways.

The dictionary that we keep on our desks at The N&O, however, doesn’t include that “revered and idolized” definition for “icon.” Instead, it refers to an icon as an “image, figure or representation.” It also mentions the “icon” as an image of a person who is “venerated as sacred” in the Eastern Orthodox religion. I think that writers over the past few years have taken that reference to the religious icon and have broadened it to cultural figures. Instead of referring to a picture, “icon” now refers to real, live people.

But even more may be behind this usage. I recently read a magazine profile of the actress Jessica Lange that described her as “iconic.” The writer meant to convey, I think, that Lange is a symbol of something larger — in her younger days, of idealized beauty (witness her role in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz”), and now, in her 50s, of a self-assured, fulfilled woman and professional. She is, as a definition of icon in thefreedictionary.com has it, an “important and enduring symbol.” The worshipful tone of the article, though, makes me think that he might have been calling her an object of devotion, too.

What does this change in the use of the words “icon” and “iconic” mean? I think the change offers an interesting view of how language evolves even in our own times. The switch in “icon” happened, it appears to me, in the past 20 years (or maybe even less). If I were a social philosopher, I might see the use of “icon” outside of religious context as an indication of a movement toward secularization, or I might see it as a symptom of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Perhaps it just means that conscientious writers search for the right words and that one writer’s use breeds another — and another and another until the word is widely accepted.

Here is a comprehensive, online definition of icon from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.