Remember “surreal”? People used to say it all the time, mostly in situations that had nothing to do with limp watches or dreamlike events.
“The service here is so slow, it’s surreal!”
Now you hardly ever hear “surreal” anymore. It’s been replaced by “iconic,” which again is used in ways that have nothing to do with those gilded Russian angels, saints and madonnas painted on wood.
According to the dictionary, an icon, in the figurative sense, is “a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.” So a map is an icon of sorts, because it stands for and in fact resembles a geographic region.
Also in a figurative sense, an icon is a person who is especially revered or adored: Lady Gaga is a pop music icon. If you try, you can imagine her with a spiritual look in her eye and a veil on her head, its folds rigid and symmetrical, the whole framed in gold and illumined by flickering candles.
It is in this sense that “icon” and “iconic” are now being used ad nauseam. And it’s not just people who are iconic: Secretariat was an iconic horse, Rin Tin Tin an iconic German Shepherd. Recently I even heard someone on public radio refer to something as “an iconic moment,” which stretches figurativeness farther than I can follow. (I usually refer to NPR as such an icon of media excellence that I’m allowed a tiny criticism here.)
It’s not so much that I object to the meaning of a word expanding to designate objects it didn’t originally refer to. I object to the overuse that dilutes and enfeebles it and turns it into a minor irritant, like a finger poking an old bruise. My spouse encourages me to become more tolerant, but I guess I’m just an icon of linguistic hypersensitivity.
And then there’s “awesome,” as in “Would you like ketchup with your fries?”
Really? I thought that “awesome” might describe Moses’ experience conversing with God on Mount Sinai, or the feeling one gets standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon—reverence mixed with admiration and a dash of fear. But no.
“I’ll pick you up at five, then.”
Patience, according to Saint Teresa, obtains all things, so if I can grit my teeth a while longer, “iconic” and “awesome” will probably go the way of “surreal.” There is one word, however, whose figurative use will likely go on and on, because it can mean almost anything that the speaker likes: cool.
At first I thought that my generation had invented it. Then I remembered “cool jazz,” the calm, restrained jazz style of the late 1940s. Some believe that originally it referred to the behavior of African slaves, who had to conceal their anger beneath a veneer of detachment.
Which is better, I wonder, “cool” or “awesome”? Whom would you rather marry, who would be more likely to treat you well and stick by you in the long term– someone cool or someone awesome? Awesomeness is warmer, which might make it the more desirable trait in a spouse.
Which reminds me that, contrary to logic, “hot” is also a positive trait, though a partner who once incarnated hotness may become more cool (and not in a good way) over time.
Isn’t language surreal?