Errors & Omissions: From icon to iconoclast in just a few short centuries

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The Independent Online

Is it possible to be both an icon and an iconoclast? Well, if anybody can have it both ways it is probably the singer Grace Jones.

Daniel Simmons writes in from Herne Bay in Kent to draw attention to a review that appeared on Monday. In its first sentence Grace Jones was described as an "Eighties style icon", while near the end came this: "Such is Jones's image now, as an iconoclast, clothes horse and cultural symbol, that her music seems to take a back seat."

It is worth recalling the origins of "icon". It is a Greek word meaning image. It signifies particularly the painted religious images venerated in the Eastern Orthodox churches. Hence the modish meaning, a person or thing celebrated in popular culture as embodying the spirit of a period or movement. "Iconoclasm" means "image-breaking". The original Iconoclasm was a religious movement against icons in eighth-century Byzantium. Hence an iconoclast is a person who shockingly rejects things most people hold dear.

That an icon can also be an iconoclast is a dramatic illustration of how, with time, the meanings of words shift, split and shimmer like a mirage.


Full Marx: This column has from time to time railed against crass headlines that make arbitrary references to film titles. You know the sort of thing: An Aardvark Too Far; The Italian Aardvark; The Good, the Bad and the Aardvark. It is only right, then, that we should note a headline that makes genuinely witty use of a film title.

Agents of the Stasi, the hated former East German secret police, were supposed to have been purged from public service. Last Saturday a news story reported that 17,000 of them have been discovered still in state employment. Headline: "Germany shocked by the other lives of civil servants."

Note that the headline doesn't just quote a film title with a word changed; it takes the key words from the title The Lives of Others and puts them to apt use in the headline. And the film and the news story are actually about the same subject. Would that all such headlines fulfilled those elementary conditions.


Debauched language: Wednesday's bizarre story about an orgy in a Somerset country house inspired reporters to extraordinary flights of fancy. Our report included this sociological observation: "Exclusive swinging parties have long been a staple for the debauched doyens of Mayfair, but locals from the nearby village of Goathurst were flabbergasted." (Goathurst! You couldn't make it up.)

You can't help but wonder how much the reporter really knows about debauchery in Mayfair. He certainly doesn't know the meaning of the word "doyen". It has the same derivation as "dean" and means the senior member of a group. You see references to the doyen of the diplomatic corps or the doyen – or often the feminine doyenne – of a social circle.

Such associations with high society may have confused this writer. I think he probably meant "denizens" of Mayfair – native inhabitants, as opposed to foreigners. Incidentally, some people would object to "the nearby village", insisting that "nearby" is an adverb only and it should be "the neighbouring village". That is too pedantic even for this column.


Deeply meaningful: This is from a theatre review, published on Monday: "I'd like to think [the show] would work as a meaningful touchstone of wartime memories." That would be as opposed to a meaningless touchstone, I suppose. Just get rid of "meaningful".

"Touchstone" is an interesting exhibit from the Museum of Ancient Metaphors. Today, nobody uses one in daily life, but we all happily babble on about them. A touchstone is an abrasive stone used for testing the fineness of precious metals by the colour of the trace they leave when rubbed on it.


Capital error: The lunatic proliferation of a capital T on the word "the" has apparently reached the Army, if you believe a news story published on Monday: "The soldiers, from The Rifles regiment were part of a 30-man team." So it's "The Rifles"? So why not "The Welsh Guards" or "The Foreign Legion"?

I blame pop groups. When people started writing about "The Who" and "The Beatles" a madness was let loose. I say restrict "The" to the titles of literary and artistic works – The Marriage of Figaro, The Turn of the Screw – and periodicals with "The" on the masthead.