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There were giants on the Earth ... before the Flood. We don't have giants any more. We have icons. People like Will Carling, described in the Daily Telegraph last week as "the muddy icon of the comfy Sunday supplements"; and musician Iggy Pop, who has just starred among "upcoming icons" of Radio 1's new Icons programme. The OED's editors have a whole Valhalla of them including Betty Grable (the first to be recorded, in 1982), Madonna, V I Lenin and Donald Trump.

All have been called icons. It's an odd choice, because until recently an icon was something that didn't really exist, being only a likeness of something or someone that did. (The painting Whistler's Mother became a sort of semantic throwback when someone called it an icon in 1991.) Icons representing God and the saints (the Madonna) are put up in Orthodox churches to assist the faithful, but only the simpler sort of worshipper ever thought these things were themselves to be adored. Now, in an interesting reversal, we have substituted the reality for the image. The OED includes the Statue of Liberty and the Spitfire, which are examples of the old sort of icon, standing for something other than themselves, such as the spirit of America or British pluck. I suppose the Barbie Doll, also in the list, stands for the joys of childhood, but Mozart and Woody Allen are presumably there for themselves alone.

Icons are big in the 1990s. They are also very small - about a centimetre square and, except among computer nerds, not at all worshipful. But the computer firms who borrowed the word for those little pictures on the screen are using it in its pristine sense. The Greek eikon was any old image, which was all it meant in English until the 19th century. The word for those sportsmen and entertainers used to be idols; I don't know how it became icons.

Nicholas Bagnall

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