Monday, July 20, 2009

Icons and Idols

In today's Wall Street Journal, Joe Queenan writes on the journalistic watering down of the word "icon".

This is actually something that has bothered me for a while. The word icon comes from the Greek, eikon. It refers to something that is an image or representation of something that is more real or greater than itself. The Bible uses this word to describe humans, being made in the image of God and of Christ being the perfect image of God, the perfect icon. In the biblical sense each human is an icon, though flawed to various degrees, all could be spoken of in terms of being an icon of the living God.

Works of religious art, images on a coin or even images on a computer screen can be properly called an icon because they point to something greater and more real.

This isn't how journalists and commentators use the word when describing celebrities, however. What happens when we start using this word for popular people in culture? When we say that Michael Jackson was an icon, what are we saying? What does he represent, and is what he represents worth imitating or looking toward? It abuses the word so badly that it no longer contains its proper meaning. Perhaps the creators of American Idol have a more proper terminology for celebrities of this kind. According to The Free Dictionary, the term idol means:

1.a. An image used as an object of worship.
b. A false god.
2. One that is adored, often blindly or excessively.
3. Something visible but without substance.

Is this not a more proper term for the role of many celebrities?

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