What is an icon

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					What is an icon?
Pop culture glut sees the I-word used even for Paris Hilton
By PHIL KLOER The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 10/10/06

The question these days isn't who is an icon. It's who isn't an icon. Paris Hilton calls herself one. The TV show "Celebrity Duets" conferred the title on both Marie Osmond and Cheech Marin (of Cheech and Chong). Media outlets have recently slapped the Big I on Pamela Anderson, Steve Irwin, Boy George and "America's Funniest Home Videos." (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's contribution is an ongoing series called "Atlanta Icons" on locations like Stone Mountain and the Varsity.)


Icon of Mary at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church of Atlanta

Martin Luther King Jr.

DC Comics


A SAMPLING OF ICONS According to the scholarly three-volume book "American Icons": 1. Barbie 2. Mount Rushmore 3. Tara 4. Harley-Davidson motorcycles 5. The Alamo

According to People magazine and VH1 1. Oprah Winfrey 2. Superman 3. Elvis Presley 4. Lucille Ball

But the more "icons" we accumulate, the weaker they all become.
5. Tom Cruise

"The term has gotten debased, it's been weakened, in the same way the word 'star' has been debased," says Rhonda Wilcox, editor of the academic journal Studies in Popular Culture.
According to recent media mentions 1. Paris Hilton 2. "The Scream" painting 3. Steve Irwin 4. Andre Agassi 5. Stone Mountain

"If you're gonna tell me that Jessica Simpson is an icon," she adds, "then I'm worried." It's a noun that's almost infinitely modified — gay icons, movie icons, rock icons, fashion icons, kitsch icons. The Silly Putty of signifiers can take on anything. "At one time, icon had a pretty strong meaning," says Paul McFedries, author of "Word Spy: The Word Lover's Guide to Modern Culture." "But when you lose the original strict and narrow meaning, the word gets devalued and a bit stale."

Other words have slid down this slope, although few to such an extent. The word "genius," says McFedries, originally was reserved only for true giants of intellect. "Now anybody who's smarter than you is a genius," he jokes. Likewise, "diva" moved from referring only to female opera singers who combined notable talent and volatile temperament to an easy tag for any female singer with a Top 40 hit who would show up for a VH1 charity event. Centuries before the media and the culture at large elevated Spider-Man and Mr. Spock to icon-hood, the term was almost always applied to a work of Christian art, such as paintings of Jesus, Mary, or early saints. (The ancient Greek word "ikon" meant "image.") So the history of icons, in effect, runs from Madonna to Madonna. The word retains that meaning in art history classes and Greek Orthodox churches, but over the years it morphed until it meant a thing or person that is both specific and universal — a symbol that resonates. (The recent computer usage of a clickable image is related, but in a different realm.) People could be iconic — Oprah Winfrey, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Babe Ruth. Places could be iconic — the Golden Gate Bridge, Las Vegas, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Things could be iconic — the Ford Mustang, the Crayola Crayon, Tupperware. All of those examples are included in "American Icons: An Encyclopedia of People, Places and Things That Have Shaped Our Culture," a recent three-volume book that offers professors' essays on 115 icons. "We got into big debates about what should be included in the book," says Wilcox, an English professor at Gordon College in Barnesville."But most of the time it should be something that is emblematic and has a lot of larger meanings." The book doesn't offer a simple definition, but the introduction includes some weighty criteria. An icon: • "Generates strong responses; people identify with it, or against it." • Stands for related values; John Wayne stands for the cowboy, traditional masculinity and conservative politics.

• Has historical roots, communicates widely, can be employed in a variety of ways (consider the photo of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate promoting "The Seven-Year Itch") and is usually successful in commerce. • And, most important, has "a depth of significance." Compare that checklist with the one devised, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, when People magazine and VH1 justified their rankings for their 2003 list of the "200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons." They included: • "Can you dress up as them for Halloween?" • "Do they pass the one-name test?" • Has "Saturday Night Live" satirized them? • Do they have a catchphrase? Not surprisingly, that list included Britney Spears, Martha Stewart and Bugs Bunny. True icon-hood, arguably, can be found in the people who appear on both lists. They include Lucille Ball, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson, Wayne and Monroe. Dennis Hall, co-editor of the "American Icons" book, taught a class at the University of Louisville last semester on icons, and told his students to think of their own. He was impressed with their range: the chain saw, the swimming pool, the bikini, the treehouse, Miles Davis. "The notion of icon-icity is not limited to people," says Hall, "but most discussions of icons now focus on people, because we're more comfortable with that." Companies, however, know that creating an icon can mean billions of dollars. "Corporations go crazy trying to achieve these logos that achieve iconic status," says Hall, mentioning the Nike Swoosh and McDonald's Golden Arches. "You know you really have the status when you're recognized by those who don't use the product." Wilcox believes the slipping power of "icon" coincides with the rise of the Internet and the "information overload" we've all experienced. "We have this fast accumulation of places and names, but then you don't have the same sifting through of the folks who are most memorable," she says. But once the word has been applied to Paris Hilton, can it ever move back to its earlier significance? Word expert McFedries doubts it. "As far as I know, it's a one-way street. I can't think of any example where that has happened." Hall says, "There's an undeniable inflation going on, and people are gonna do what they're gonna do. But whether we exhaust the utility of that noun or not, there will always be people, places and things that have resonance." In other words, a century from now, people will still be stimulated by Dylan, Einstein or Muhammad Ali. Sorry, Paris, you won't make the cut. Comments By AJC Staff October 9, 2006 07:51 PM | Link to this

Have we worn out the word icon? Who do you think we should reserve the term for and who should be left out in the cold? By AJC Staff October 9, 2006 07:54 PM | Link to this Have we worn out the word icon? If we reserved the term, as we once did, for the superlatives, who would that be? Who would you leave out? By scott madigan October 10, 2006 09:39 AM | Link to this Icon is definitely way overused, but no more so than “legacy” and “scandal”. By Monica October 10, 2006 09:46 AM | Link to this The most over-used word is “AWESOME”. Do people even know what it means? There are very few things that are truly “awesome”. If a person were actually “in awe” everytime they used the word then that individual has more problems than they think. And, YES, we have worn out “icon”. Again, I think the real meaning of the word is not commonly known. The more these words are used, the less impact and meaning they carry. By Mike October 10, 2006 09:48 AM | Link to this How about: Paris Hilton - “Hero” By Mike October 10, 2006 09:58 AM | Link to this How about, Paris Hilton - “Hero” By Bruce October 10, 2006 10:13 AM | Link to this I think to be an icon you have to be remembered past two generations. I am 25 and i know who Lucile Ball, Dylan, Monroe, and a few others. Paris hilton isn‟t even a hero. now the Hilton Hotels could be one. Paris is just their over exposed daughter. Think about it she doesn‟t even have a talent. She can‟t sing, she can‟t act. Icon is an overused term By Morrigan October 10, 2006 10:15 AM | Link to this

Overused ad nauseam: “(I‟m) uncomfortable”, “inappropriate”, and “it‟s about…”. Let‟s try “I don‟t like that”, “sexual”, and “it‟s”. Drop the candy-assed terms and use your vocabulary to say what you mean. By conyers October 10, 2006 10:42 AM | Link to this ah, the word police will be out in force. i have to agree with monica, “awesome” is overused and undervalued as a description. very few things are “awesome,” though i tend to think my granddaughter qualifies. By conyers October 10, 2006 10:49 AM | Link to this and yes, the word “icon” is overused and mis-applied. iconic figures tend to be subjective. some would consider JFK an icon but others would not. another word that is consistently mis-applied is “disaster.” for example, the ajc used the word „disaster‟ when discribing the uga/tenn. football game the other day. i think they were “diagnosing a disaster” in the sports pages. hurricane katrina was a disaster, the tsunami in southeast asia was also a disaster. but a football game? no way. By sdc October 10, 2006 11:51 AM | Link to this What about the word BEAUTIFUL?? By Ron October 10, 2006 11:56 AM | Link to this The most over used word is “like”. Like when I was in school,like man that is cool,like man I‟m so hot, like lets go there. Gimme a break. By Philip October 10, 2006 12:37 PM | Link to this Supermodel. Diva. Hero. “…of his/her generation”. Anything Madonna might be called immediately deems is having been sullied and over-used (unless the word is talentless). By DBH 1 October 10, 2006 12:37 PM | Link to this

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