In the last fifty years or so, increasingly in the last decade, the English word ICON, in the meaning of a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or worthy of admiration or respect, has become a journalistic buzzword. It is unclear exactly how this new meaning developed. What is clear, however, is its historical connection with the trichotomy icon/index/symbol, introduced in 1885 by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) as part of his theory of signs. The origin and initial spread of the new meaning can perhaps be attributed to certain influential books by Peirce’s popularizers. But this (transferred) sense no longer answers to its proper meaning in Peirce’s theory. In one investigator’s words (T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs, p. 209),
“Peirce’s concept of an icon is subject to misunderstanding because that word is used today for any visual image, especially if highly conventionalized, that has a readily recognizable reference. That usage owes more to ‘iconology’ in art history and the use of ‘ikon’ in the Eastern Orthodox Church than it does to the Greek root of the word to which Peirce appealed. A conventionalized image has a reference that is essentially symbolic.”
Then, dilating on the fact that since visual images “mean what they do because of a conventional rule of interpretation, they are visual symbols, not icons in Peirce’s sense,” Short goes on to say (229-230): “More confusing still is the new journalistic practice of calling any readily recognized person, building, and so on, an ‘icon’. But that is so inexcusable and bereft of definite meaning as not to deserve further mention.”
Whether or not one agrees that the practice is “bereft of definite meaning,” there is no doubt that the constant bleating of ICON in today’s media is utterly noisome. But then how to explain its popularity?
Putting one’s disgust aside and examining the question of origins is a good start. One who knows nothing of the history of ICON in English might be tempted to say that the contemporary meaning is simply a semantic extension deriving from the word’s synonymy with the word idol––in consonance with Webster’s Unabridged––and leave it at that. But this would also be skirting the issue of buzzwordhood.
While it is clear that Peirce was the one that first used the word as part of his sign taxonomy, the paths by which the extension occurred are not. I venture to say that the journalistic meaning was engendered by the semeiotic one, most probably via (1) the propagation of Peirce’s work in Charles K. Ogden and I. A. Richards’ influential The Meaning of Meaning (1923), which included an appendix with extensive quotations from Peirce’s letters to a British writer, Victoria Lady Welby, referring to Peirce’s sign theory. Their correspondence during the years 1903-1911 is the source of some of Peirce’s most important statements about his SEMEIOTIC, as he called it, following Locke. (Ogden became acquainted with Peirce while still a Cambridge undergraduate through his contacts with Lady Welby); (2) the adoption (while misconstruing the theory) of Peirce’s terminology by Charles Morris in his influential book, Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938); and (3) the appearance and widespread penetration of The Verbal Icon (1954) by the foremost theorist of the New Criticism and follower of Richards, William K. Wimsatt.
This leaves the main question unanswered. Perhaps we would do well to recall the word’s sound structure, as detailed here in a post from July 15, 2011 (“The Hidden Homophony in ‘Icon(ic)”), to wit:
“The terminologization of icon in computer-speak could be a contributory factor, but a more proximate cause may lurk in something virtual, viz. the homophony of the initial vowel with the words I and eye. Nothing is more important to the notional content of the contemporary meanings of icon and iconic than their epitomic connotations of SELFHOOD (as embodied in the first person singular pronoun), and of SEEING (as embodied in name of the organ of sight). This explanation rises in plausibility when seen as a variation on Euclid’s pons asinorum as applied to language.”