What does iconic mean?


If something or someone is considered iconicthey're very influential, recognizable, and revered (e.g., Rembrandt is an iconic painter).

Examples of iconic


Examples of iconic
barack obama really is the most iconic american of our generation
@sean_nesmith, December 2018
The remarkable stories behind 8 of the most iconic war photos ever taken
Daniel Brown, Business Insider (headline), December 2018

Where does iconic come from?

Corpus Christi Caller-Times / Wikimedia

Iconic, evidenced in the 1650s, originally referred to an icon, an “image” or “portrait,” as in a religious icon.

Myrabella / Wikimedia

Zoom ahead to the 1950s, when an icon expanded to refer to someone who’s celebrated for representing a particular cultural phenomenon (as one may have revered a religious icon), e.g., a rock music icon. The adjective iconic expanded with it, as evidenced by at least the 1970s.

We speak of Albert Einstein as an iconic scientist or genius, or Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans as iconic pop artworks. We speak of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an iconic activist, or the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” as an iconic rap song.

Since the term iconic implies influence and stature, the word has further evolved (some would argue diluted) to mean “significant” or “noteworthy” more generally.

One example of this definition shift comes from YouTube star Emilia Fart. (Yes, Fart.) In 2018, Fart became, well, something of an icon of feminism and body positivity in the online LGBTQ community. Her videos feature absurdist content meant to make us rethink social norms. She encourages people to be iconic—in her universe, to unabashedly and unforgivingly be one’s strange but fabulous self. 

Who uses iconic?

Iconic is widely used to describe incredibly successful and influential people who epitomize (and/or ushered in) some significant cultural moment, or who might otherwise be idolized for their actions or talents.

Iconic also, of course, extends to cultural products, like movies or songs, that have a profound impact on the zeitgeist.

In the popular lexicon, though, iconic can also refer to something more generally notable, recognizable, memorable, or popular in some way, à la the slang classic.

That said, many might grumble that the term is overused or misused.

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