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Icon, Iconic, & Iconoclastic

News of Prince's death shocked the internet

News of Prince’s death sent people to the dictionary to look up three closely related words: icon, iconic, and iconoclast.

Icon means “a person or thing widely admired especially for having great influence or significance in a particular sphere,” and is the root word of the others; it’s the first to have entered the language, with written use from as far back as 1572. The word, which comes from the Greek eikōn (“to resemble”) originally simply referred to an image or a pictorial representation; later it took on a religious significance in much of its use, notably for the images of saints painted on wood panels in the Eastern Christian church. Following this extended meaning, icon came to be used in the broader sense to refer to a successful and admired person.

Iconic began to be used in the 17th century, and had an initial meaning that is quite similar to icon, referring to an image, representation, or portrait (not necessarily with any religious significance).

It is interesting that Prince should be described both with the words icon and iconoclast, as the original meaning of the second word is “one who destroys religious images” (in a sense, “one who destroys icons”). This word also began to be used in English in the 17th century, and comes from the Middle Greek eikonoklastēs, which means, literally “image destroyer.”

Article updated in May 2021 to reflect a revised definition

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