“Heroes” – they’re a dime a dozen. Why else did we need to create a new category “super heroes”? “Stars” – they’re everywhere. To distinguish those of special radiance we presented you with “superstars”. This verbal inflation did not end here. “Legends” arrived to capture the elevated status and influence of particular individuals. But that no longer suffices. And “super legends” doesn’t cut it.
We could, one supposes, have fashioned a new word and worked for public acceptance, but instead we appropriated a term from existing inventory and attached new meaning to it. The word borrowed originating in the religious lexicon offered a reverential dimension suited to the purpose.
Surely by now you’ve guessed it – ICON. What it does is establish a new rung in the hierarchy, elevate the pedestal even higher. It forces us to distinguish the merely famous and ephemeral celebrity from the enduring, classic and consequential.
But does it? Is the term already undergoing devaluation? Have icons proliferated as rapidly as superheroes and super stars? Frank Sinatra is an icon, and so is Tony Bennett. George Washington and Abe Lincoln are icons, but recently Ronald Reagan seems to have joined them. The Mona Lisa surely qualifies, but apparently so does Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”, and Andy Warhol’s Coca Cola Bottle. Have we set the bar too low or have we accurately identified what is significant and will endure? Only in time can we determine whether today’s iconic figures and creations are so described years from now. Meanwhile, we may best be served by rationing the term and avoiding rhetorical excess – while also considering what, after iconic, will come next.