So many icons, so little time: How we do it

Iconic? Did somebody say iconic?

Iconic? Did somebody say iconic?

Yes, everybody said iconic, especially in the news racket. Every other thing you read about these days is supposed to be iconic.

I do a quick check of one day’s edition of The New York Times, which is probably less cliche-ridden and more literate than most newspapers, and I find “iconic lipstick building,” “iconic Long Island sign,” “iconic metal traps,” and “iconic bridge.”

I switch over to The Washington Post, and I find “iconic volcano,” “the iconic British pound,” and the “U.S. government’s iconic color-coded terrorism warning system.”

All of which raises the question of whether “iconic” means anything at all, or whether it’s just one of those words or phrases so well liked by slothful writers that back in the days of movable type the letters of it would have been cast as a single convenient slug, known as a cliche, ready for instant use by busy printers.

If that’s its role, it’s not alone.

“Struggling” is another. Every other darned thing that is having a hard time of it is said to be struggling: news outlets, Rio de Janeiro, cranberry growers, people, a town, a startup company, a newcomer — again from one day’s edition of the Times. “Afghanistan’s struggling government,” comes from The Washington Post, but it could come from anywhere.

What does “struggling” mean? In most cases it does not mean struggling. If struggling students were really struggling, they wouldn’t be failing. Often it means not struggling, as in “struggling with alcoholism,” or “struggling with substance abuse.”

And “substance” is another one, meaning not material reality as opposed to immaterial ether, but drugs. If you hear that someone is struggling with substance abuse, you know he’s a druggie, plain and simple.

What else? Well, let’s see.

We have “robust” and “muscular,” two other currently popular words in the world of journalistic prose, deserving of their own metal slugs.

A quick search turns up the New Deal referred to as “a muscular collection of government programs,” in The New York Times, as well a lament that advertising has been “less robust than expected.”

Another story has “muscular manufacturing” and a “muscular defense of capitalism.”

The Washington Post has “a dramatically more robust approach in Pakistan,” and, in a car review, “distinctively muscular side panels,” which I like.

The Seattle Times has a “robust interpretation by a piano duo.”

The New York Times said of that muscular manufacturing, by the way, that its “bread and butter is exports,” which I also like, not just for the piling up of cliches but also for the mixing of metaphors.

Then we have “ramp up” and “ratchet up,” two fashionable ways in the news racket to say increase, though at times, as with all cliches, the meaning gets lost and the words are used just because they have a pleasing ring to them.

That seems to be the case with the statement by the majority leader of the South Carolina House of Representatives, Kenny Bingham, quoted by The Associated Press, with reference to a recent scandal: “I think it has ratcheted up everybody in the whole process because now we’re talking about some very serious violations of ethics law at a minimum,” where the meaning of “ratcheted” is barely discernible.

“Mexico ratcheted up its fight against cartels,” from The Associated Press, is more conventional, as is “Government forces ratcheted up pressure on the militants,” from the same source.

“Ramp up” is similar. A musical group “ramped up the energy level,” according to the AP, and there was a “ramped-up security plan,” according to this newspaper.

“At risk” is another favorite, having displaced the more conventional “in danger.”

In one Times story from Vietnam I find the following things to be at risk: “the coffee crop,” “the city itself,” and “everything here.”

I especially like the hyphenated adjectival form, as in “at-risk youth,” which is a favorite of educational and social services bureaucrats, who have bequeathed it to us in the media. Which might be appropriate since our very profession is at risk.

Another hyphenated favorite is “-fueled,” as in, “scandal-fueled gossip,” from The Associated Press, though you also see it in simple form, as in, “problems of algae … are being fueled by a perfect storm,” also from the AP, where it comes coupled with the cliche “perfect storm” at no extra charge. Or, something “fueled Tuesday’s drop” in the stock market, where I like the idea of fueling a drop, since it seems to drain “fueling” of its sense, just as “ratcheting up everybody” drains ratcheting of its sense, leaving us with a cliche in its purest form.

My favorite, however, is the recent newspaper construction used to dress up the humdrum reality of a press release, which is that the issuer of the press release said something in a statement.

“The French culture minister, Frederic Mitterand, said in a statement that he was astonished by the arrest,” is a fair example, from the Times.

Why do they do this? is what I ask in a question.

And in response I exclaim in an exclamation, It stinks!


In a column last week on Gov. Paterson’s standing with the public, I said that the latest poll numbers from the Siena Research Institute were obtained from a telephone survey done in April. That was a careless mistake on my part. They were from this month, September.

Donald Levy, director of the institute, assures me he would never use numbers that were less than current. My apologies.

Categories: News, Opinion

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