The Fallacy of Icons (and Mullets)


Sam Sniderman died this past week.

He was 92 and he died in his sleep.

From all reports, Sam Sniderman was a very nice man. He was also a very smart man; at one point his chain of Sam the Record Man stores stretched across the country.

But whatever else he was, Sam Sniderman was an iconic man. Everything about him was iconic. His store on Yonge Street in Toronto was iconic. Even the neon sign on his store on Yonge Street was iconic.

So when he died, it was only inevitable that our iconic media would point out just how iconic the man  was.

Every print obituary I read used the word.

Every hourly newscast I heard on CBC Radio used the word.

The all-news radio and TV stations used it.

After hearing it and seeing it in print for the 200th time, I went to bed in a darkened room with tea bags over my eyes.

You remember the mullet? It was a wildly popular hair style back in the '80s and early '90s. Especially among hockey players. It was also called hockey hair.

While it seemed to be everywhere, people finally began to realize that whether you were Bono or an NHLer, it made you look like a doofus.

Iconic is a mullet word. Everybody seems to use it even though it's meaningless in the context we often give it.

It doesn't mean what we think it means. An icon is literally a picture. Period. It refers especially to the Russian Orthodox or Easter Rite church.

It is an image that is supposed to illustrate or stand for something else; it is representational. Like on your computer. Those little things on the screen are icons that represent something.

We have transformed its meaning into something approaching a cliché. It now stands for celebrity, fame, universal recognition, mixed in with a healthy dose of nostalgia.

We come across a word, a new word perhaps and we overuse it to death. Its usage spreads, like pee in a swimming pool, until, unpleasant though it is, it is everywhere.
We become trapped into using it to the point where it ceases to have real meaning. If everything is iconic, then nothing is.

A few years ago, the mullet word was "resonate." Everything either resonated or didn't resonate. Every time I heard  the word, I pictured a couple in bed.

"Did it resonate for you?"

"Well, now that you ask, no."

It's the same with the word "line." We have a fine line, a red line, a bottom line, a line in the sand, a thin line and a tough line.

Now I'm not one of those grammar goofs who jumps on every little presumed deviation. Usage does change, sometimes meaning evolves.

But there are times when I think we could all use an antidote to the misuse and abuse of our great language, and our cliché addiction.

And I happen to have a bottle of antidote with me.

It's a slim British booklet called: Gwynne's Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English.

Gwynne, by the way is G-W-Y-N-N-E, the cover says it explains how to write well and "the main pitfalls to avoid." The book is the product of the fertile mind of a man named Neville Martin Gwynne.  He is an old Etonian and retired businessman who for 30 years has been giving lessons on everything from natural medicine and the elements of music to "How to start up and run your own business."

The little blue book is a wonder. It incorporates much of The Elements of Style, the E.B. White/ William Strunk style guide, but is a bit more poetic. His section on the comma is a delight.

And unlike Strunk and White, Neville Martin Gwynne manages to connect proper grammar to the sublime. He proves that happiness depends, to a certain extent, on good grammar.

"Grammar is the science of using words rightly leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly without which, as both common sense and experience show - happiness is impossible; therefore happiness depends at least partly on good grammar."

The man is . . . um . . . an icon?

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