Diran Adebayo
‘Iconic’: word of the year (again!)

People, Napoleon astutely observed, do not want to be free. They think they do, but no, they want to be led, and nowhere do we see the truth of this more clearly than in the way in which certain words and expressions are taken up and achieve near ubiquitous currency. Long-time readers of mine will know that the trajectory of words – particularly slang words – interests me: who is it who first uses a particular word in a slang way? How does that word gain critical mass?…But there is no mystery around how a word achieves world domination once it has reached critical mass, That’s courtesy of a whole heap of sheep clambering on board.

Three years ago the word, the phrase in UK business and corporate circles was ‘Going forward…’ You suddenly couldn’t move in this country for guys and girls in suits saying, ‘Dah, dah-dah-, going forward, dah dah, dah…’ They weren’t using it, of course, to enhance clarity or to improve their spoken English – most of the time the phrase was used redundantly. No, they were using it to ‘sound the part’, to solidify their business-player credentials. Presumably, some financial hotshot used the phrase originally, and then all business types, or arts company leaders keen to show that they were now properly business-minded, adopted it ad nauseam.  (Much of the world of Suits is, of course, a scam. Management consultants, PR people, psychologists, etc. You wear a suit, have a decent accent, use phrases like ‘Going Forward…’ and, on the strength of those, charge somebody £500 an hour)

And then, two to three years ago, the word became ‘Iconic’. I haven’t been able to turn on the radio or the telly or open a newspaper without someone using that word since. It’s just been crazy. Rarely in my lifetime have I seen a word so overused.

Me and ‘Iconic’, or, more precisely, ‘Iconoclast’ go back a long way. It was one of three funky new words I once plucked from a book  – a cricket book, I think it was. ‘Iconoclast’, ‘prodigious’, I forget the third… I added them to my little ‘Words’ notebook and thought, ‘Yeah, Diran, you’re moving to the major leagues, vocab-wise…’  I admit I did hammer ‘iconoclast’ for a while: every school assignment – it could be Science homework, I didn’t care, I would try to get ‘iconoclast’ in there. But I was eight, and there was a kind of honesty to it: me showing my excitement, developing a prose personality …
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The media (the chief culprits here), have no such excuse. For them, in their typically lazy, truth-shy and  sensationalising way, ‘Iconic’ has become this shorthand to add a usually spurious lustre or grandeur or sense of importance to a matter. If you’re doing a report about some event or an actor or a football match or a festival, call it ‘Iconic’.

When Michael Jackson passed a couple of years ago, my first thought, as I posted on old Facebook ar the time, was, ‘Oh no, now we’re gonna hear ‘Iconic’ more than ever…’ And we did and, for once, to be fair, it was fair enough for the media to rinse that word. But what was definitely disturbing, to me, was how much your average semi-literate Brit intoned the word ‘Iconic’ in all the Vox Pops that followed. I mean, if somebody asked you how you felt about some artist or statesman who’s just died, you don’t say first of all, ‘he/she was iconic’. You think about a performance he gave or a speech he made, and your response is anchored, is tinged with that remembrance. ‘Iconic’ is an historian’s, an analyst’s word. And, believe me, most of these people did not look like they would have known what ‘Iconic’ was if Iconic had hit them on the head a year or so earlier. You could see that, rather than the balls or the honesty to actually think about what they felt, they were reaching for the acceptable word to use, based on what they had heard in the media that day and the previous months of ‘Iconic’ battery. It reminded me of the whole ‘Role model’ bollox. Now, if a child fails at school or a man sleeps with someone other than his ever-loving wife, rather than being prompted into a bout of self-examination, they talk about the lack or poor quality of Role Models, because it’s allowed – it’s all over the public discourse. They’ll say it, and everybody will nod. 

I notice advertisers are increasingly jumping on the ‘Iconic’ bandwagon,   As I’ve been writing this, I’ve heard, from the TV behind me, ‘Iconic’ being used in three ads – for some new Jeep and for the new Paul Simon and Paul McCartney albums. And when I switched the TV channel –  ‘cos I don’t care for ads even at their better, uniconic times – to my default station, the BBC World Service, I was greeted by reporter Matt Frei using the word four times in eight minutes, on the show ‘Americana’.  Four times! I met Matt in DC a few years back – seemed a nice, bright guy with an interestingly large number of Nigerian friends, but Matt, my man, that was poor. Don’t they have editors at the World Service anymore?

The advertisers-media interface around this shouldn’t surprise, I guess.  The latter seems increasingly about selling too. Even the BBC is not ad-free anymore (thick, these days, with ads about itself).

A decade or so ago, for my own slightly mad reasons, I began keeping a list of every time I heard or read ‘Africa’ being referred to as if it was one country, or even a city, rather than a continent,  in the media  ‘The terrorist attacks in Kabul, Mumbai and Africa,’ etc etc etc. No wonder Sarah Palin was confused). I stopped when I got to about a thousand instances. (Still got the list. Maybe I should embroider all the text on a massive sheet and become a celebrated YBA). Anyway, I’ve been doing the same with ‘Iconic’. The entries for 2009 and 2010  might exhaust even the internet’s bandwidth.  But let me give you, without further ado, a little flavour of Iconic 2011…

‘Now, on Channel 4, the iconic British film, Get Carter…’ ‘Alex Zane interrogates Kieffer Sutherland about his iconic role on ’24’ “they attacked some of our most iconic places,”  (London deputy mayor Kit Malthouse,) ‘Franklin Graham, son of iconic Christian evangelist Billy Graham…’ ‘Paul Daniel’s wig, an iconic piece of TV history,’ ‘The ‘iconic’ Hove and Portsmouth seat won by Blair in 2005..’ ‘the iconic English brand Cadbury,’ ‘Mrs Thatcher’s Iconic handbag,’ ‘The Savoy’s iconic ‘American’ bar…’ ‘the iconic Skylon,’ ‘the regeneration area between Westway and Paddington is one of London’s iconic projects.’  ‘iconic locations such as Lindisfarne castle in Northumberland…  ‘the iconic parliament building,’ ‘the iconic site on which Britain’s oldest house has just been found’

‘Harlem: the BBC traces the iconic neighbourhood’s changing fortunes.’ ‘BBC Radio 6 is a station that brings together the cutting edge of today and the iconic and groundbreaking music of the past 40 years.”

‘Rod Stewart performs some of his iconic hits that made him a music legend…’‘A new song collection from one of the most iconic artists of all time, (Paul Simon)’,  ‘The iconic solo albums Macartney and Macartney 2’ ‘the iconic Arnold Schwarzenenegger’,  ‘the iconic Marvin Gaye ‘s What’s Going On’.

A few press releases:  ‘Don’t miss! This is the sensational live show of the iconic 70s movie that exploded legend Jimmy Cliff and Reggae onto the world stage’  ‘Find our work inside and outside three iconic buildings, Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and The Hayward…’ ‘Angela featured in the iconic 1981 film Burning an Illusion’ ‘This wild, hot and about to happen new trio mixes iconic vocalist/bassist Binise’s Congolese roots with Miriam Makeba covers…’

More BBC: ‘ the iconic Aushcwitz gates’. ‘the death of the iconic Bill Mclaren -‘The President picks up an iconic award.’ ‘And now, behind the scenes of an iconic hotel,’  ‘To mark 25 years of Black Adder, the iconic cast of Black Adder…’  ‘Did you jump at the chance to be in this iconic film (Brighton Rock)? ‘  ‘Now, playing us out with one of her most iconic songs,’ (Kirsty Wark, Newsnight)

. ‘I think it is iconic and highly significant’ UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox on Bin Laden’s death. (said four times in three minutes in a BBC Radio interview)

Animals: ‘The return of the iconic’ wildlife series on ITV…’ ’let’s talk about one of the most iconic animals – the panda’ (World Service).  ‘After years of living with nature’s most iconic predator, a man with a tiger…’

Some sport: ‘It was an iconic, football-changing moment’ (journalist Alyson Rudd talking about Paul Gascoigne’s tears at Italia ’90), ‘Manny Pacquia is the icon of the poor’ (World Service’) ‘The Iconic number 10 shirt of Wales, (Presenter Gabby Logan, then repeated by her guest),. ‘When I got there I saw this iconic stadium’ (West Ham owner David Gold)  ‘There was none of the iconic blue and red white smoke at last weekend’s Superclasico between Boca and River Plate..’

‘Here are the iconic images of this tour’ ( Sky Sports) ’Don’t miss your chance to see the most iconic team in the world. Brazil vs Scotland…’ (‘Talk Sport.)  ‘One of Brazil’s new iconic players,’  ‘You can buy the iconic Ford Transit,’ (Talk Sport, plugging their sponsors),   ‘As Zidane walked past the iconic trophy (‘World Cup Most Shocking Moments’ show) ‘The premiership is an iconic league.’ ‘Bobby Charlton, football icon’  ‘The Icons of English football’ (a series in ‘The Mirror’)

And ‘Princess Di’s iconic dresses’,  the ‘iconic beauty and luxury in a compact size’ of some new Jeep or other,  ‘and here in Australia’s most iconic city’, ‘the iconic DCI Jack Meadows of ‘The Bill’ ‘ ‘The Bill – this iconic TV classic ‘, ‘the iconic sexual frustrations’ of Mildred, (of ‘George and Mildred’, a long-forgotten British TV comedy), some BBC TV trailer for their comedy season, that ended with an actress I didn’t recognize saying  ‘iconic’ to camera. (she was possibly being ironic – let’s hope so) and, finally, one of those ‘clips and c**ts’ TV shows, ‘Pop’s greatest dance crazes’, which used the word oh, about, 30 times in an hour.

Enough, I think you will agree, already.

Boy! When Mandela dies, it’s gonna be ugly.