The Language Perfectionist: An Overused Word to Avoid

An online search turned up these specimens:

  • “Decline in fog threatens California’s iconic redwood ecosystems”
  • “The 100 Most Iconic TV Show Intros Of All Time”
  • “I’m going to show you how to make an iconic poster using the new Vector Set 18 from Go Media’s Arsenal.”

Originally, iconic meant “characteristic of an icon” — an image or representation, often of a saint or other sacred personage. The adjective, perhaps aided by marketers and publicists, evolved into an all-purpose term for making people or things seem more important or desirable.

These days, iconic is used to describe just about anything, even commonplace objects. (Prell is an “iconic shampoo,” according to news reports earlier this year.) As the examples above demonstrate, the word has become a tool for exaggeration and is now a cliche. In fact, iconic is often nominated for annual lists of “words that should be banned.”

If something truly merits an accolade, consider such synonyms as celebrated, distinctive, famous, inimitable, legendary, original, peerless, and singular.

Fun Footnote: Matters become even worse when the speaker or writer can’t get the word right. A few months ago, the mayor of Boston praised local athletes whose achievements were “ionic.” (Ionic is one of the three orders of ancient Greek architecture.)

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]