Time for iconoclasm

March 20, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

I'm tempted to send a mash note to George Stanley, the managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who, Jim Romenesko tells us, has circulated a memo to the staff saying that they have been overusing iconic and it's time to stop. Bless his heart.

Iconic is like legendary, dramatic, prestigious, and the other empty adjectives that are no more than upholstery. It's not only the writers of features sections who go in for this, though they are prime repeat offenders, but any writer trying to puff up the importance of a story by telling rather than showing will be prone to resort to such words.

Iconic at one time had a particular and useful sense. An icon, in the religious sense, is an image that is a portal into the divine realm, and iconic, strictly considered, refers to an image.

That photo of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch with her dress blown up by a blast of steam through a grate is iconic in the sense that the image has come to represent a period of movie-making, attitudes about female sexuality in the 1960s, and any number of other things. Calling Monroe iconic doesn't make apt use of the word, but casual and pretentious writers have vulgarized it until in contemporary journalism it means nothing more than "famous" or "well known." 

I'm not keen on idiotic advice to delete all adverbs, or write only with nouns and verbs, or other oversimplifications about the craft, but I do take a particular satisfaction in deleting empty adjectives as I come across them. You should too.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.