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  • Is an icon iconic?
  • Michael Shapiro

To the memory of my wife the metaphysician

The word ICON(< L icon, < Gk 'likeness, image, portrait, similitude, semblance') has entered the parlance of linguists and philosophers as a technical term, not to speak of anthropologists and other students of culture, especially those who have some cognizance of the theory of signs (semiotics) and of its modern founder, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). In Peirce's sign theory an icon is a member of his most well-known trichotomy of icon/index/symbol, by which he meant to designate the mutable relations between a SIGN and its OBJECT. Peirce's earliest published mention of this trichotomy is from 1885 ( EP1:225). 1

Here is how Peirce's most astute interpreter, T. L. Short, introduces his discussion of the trichotomy after citing several of Peirce's definitions: 'This division is based on the relation of a sign to its object—in later formulations, to its dynamic object . . . That relation is the one we have called the sign's "prior relation" to its object or the "ground" of its significance' (2007:214). Apropos of the topic of the present note, Short goes on to say:

Peirce's concept of an icon is subject to misunderstanding because that word is used today for any visual image, especially if highly conventionalized, that has a readily recognizable reference. That usage owes more to 'iconology' in art history and the use of 'ikon' in the Eastern Orthodox Church than it does to the Greek root of the word to which Peirce appealed. A conventionalized image has a reference that is essentially symbolic.


Then, dilating on the fact that since visual images 'mean what they do because of a conventional rule of interpretation, they are visual symbols, not icons in Peirce's sense', Short comments:

More confusing still is the new journalistic practice of calling any readily recognized person, building, and so on, an 'icon'. But that is so inexcusable and bereft of definite meaning as not to deserve further mention. 2


This new journalistic buzzword meaning is actually one that has developed in the last half-century. Tracing its spread is an exercise in historical semantics that can perhaps be seen as a response to Janda and Joseph's (2003:129ff.) call for 'linguistic diachronicians' to examine the present for evidence of change as it is happening 'before our very eyes', and to regard it as an essential part of the direction that the study of language change must take. 3

Returning in that spirit to the matter at hand, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language(4th edn., 2000) gives as its third definition of the word icon, 'One who is the object of great attention and devotion; an idol'. Webster's Unabridged [End Page 815](3rd edn., 1991) gives as one of its two second definitions, 'an object of uncritical devotion: IDOL, esp.: a traditional belief or ideal'. But neither of these definitions fits the current journalistic buzzword meaning exemplified by the following quotation ( Gay 2008): 4'"Sherman George was an African-American in one of the highest positions in the mayor's administration—he was an icon", said Alderman Terry Kennedy, chairman of the Aldermanic Black Caucus'.

However, draft additions from February 2001 to the Oxford English Dictionary Online(2008) do characterize this usage accurately:

A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect. Freq. with modifying word.

The date of the first example is given as 1952 (C. S. Holmes, in the Pacific Spectator): '"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz", the work of a high-spirited young man turning a critical eye upon a national icon, satirically fabulizes the American Mr. Moneybags'.

The derived adjective, iconic, with or without the postposition of, is also used in this sense, that is, 'designating a person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement; important or influential in a particular (cultural) context' ( Oxford English Dictionary Online: draft additions, December 2006), as in 'The opening scene of Ingmar Bergman's 1957 masterpiece is one...


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