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 …
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.

Literary self-help

I’ve always thought Camus’s ‘there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn’ a goodie, as far as one’s serenity levels go. You imagine someone armed with a healthy degree of scepticism already who has the wherewithal to crank it up some gears when spurned by a boy or girl or club or employer or institution…Yeah, solid. Not true in all cases, obviously – you can’t scorn hunger, but truer, I think, than old Freddy Nietzche’s much quoted, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ In my observation, what doesn’t kill you – that ‘almost-killed/ killing-you-stuff he’s talking about – is as likely to make you weaker, certainly enough for his view to be no more than half-true. I had a lot of time for Freddy when I read him – a really dynamic, fluent style, translated into English, and hey, you can’t say that of Dostoyevsky, but he was a bit of a show-off. Liked his one-liners.

Another one I’m fond of (and I forget who wrote it now) is: ‘In life one must choose between boredom and suffering.’ This seems to me to accurately get to the starkness of the choice, that Rubicon river moment, that many at some point face: on the one side, steady job, some status, security and the acceptance of a certain kind of responsibility. On the other, dreams and difficulty and another (voluntary) responsibility. Ah, but only one way lies glory…

My own one-line guide to the fair, serene life might be: ‘Don’t hurt anybody. Pay unto Caesar (as quick as you can) then follow your interests.’

Or, similar, these reflections from the musician David Mancuso on his early days (courtesy of the literary blog, ‘Savannahs of the Mind’) 

“I just want to live and be happy. I was happy to be able to pay my rent, to have my independence. This was like the best thing in the world for me. I had no real ambitions at this point… Just make friends, enjoy myself, and be responsible… Basically, I didn’t get into any trouble. My independence was very important to me.”

A Poet Writes

So – this is slightly strange. The esteemed poet Tomaz Salamun, whom I met at a writers’ retreat in Italy a while back (see gallery) has published a collection set during that period in which yours truly features some. Haven’t got a copy yet, so I couldn’t tell you what’s in ‘ “I don’t like Proust. He didn’t have Enough Sex”, Diran Says’, and some others, but here’s one. I’m very touched. Not everyday one is made the subject, especially by a poet of serious stature. Not totally across what he means here (‘Meaning’ not necessarily the point of poetry, of course) but it sure sounds scandalousJ


Crete is valvoline. When the pony shuffled off. 
I lie on a carpet. A German shepherd is a tulip. 
Diran! A flower blooms for itself. You don’t remind me 

of him, you remind me of yourself. For Péru you point to a
bow for cricket and you pump and pump, and rise. I am your
African lumpul. Diran! The earth has been trampled 

here. Then Beatrice arrived. The sheep died
off. Their masters crawl into
dreams. Schloendorf has left. I’ve done my homework,

that vent, and now Laure, Péru and Juan
are the hosts here. Péru calls us outside to look at
the moon. Bella morena bianca. Enough to enrapture

the Nubians. A window, a traveler, a sail that drinks up
flashes. Kisses of light through the leaves of the trees where
two birds are billing. A sweater lies dead

across the chain near the left headboard, that’s wrong, near the white sheet,
that’s right. You hear the birds sing, Diran.
You know that I’ve forgotten you. Hunters carry rifles

and stand up. Winter’s coming. The rails will ice over.
And those complaining now in their dreams – even sheep
trampled them – dissolve with a wave of the hand.

©Tomaz Salamun, from his collection, ‘The Blue Tower’,
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, USA, 2011)
Translated from the Slovenian by the author and Michael Biggins


Some links. First, to a link to a ‘Channel 4 News’ debate on the UK Queen’s Jubilee that I took part in:
Youtube link

Chelsea player John Terry after the court verdict. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

Also, to a discussion on BBC’s ‘Today’ programme, about the use of the insult ‘Choc Ice’ in the John Terry- football and race-court case saga…BBC link

The article I wrote for ‘The Observer’ newspaper on wider aspects of the matter is posted in ‘Articles’. There’s also a Sky news interview I did after part 2 of the saga, when former England captain Terry was found guilty by a FA disciplinary panel, but can’t find a decent length clip of it online as yet. Shall post if I do.

My man Nick Barlay is out with a fine, typically off-centre new novel, ‘La Femme d’un Homme Qui’. It’s currently in French only, but here’s a link to a great review….link

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