Grammar Moses: My most iconic column to date

Michael Jordan was an iconic basketball player. Michael Jackson was an iconic entertainer. Michael Phelps was an iconic swimmer. Michael was an iconic archangel.

This is not about Michaels but icons. There just happens to be a lot of Michaels who fit the bill.

But what is an icon, and what makes something iconic? It’s a little like pornography: you know it when you see it. Or at least you should.

“I think of ‘iconic’ as indicating originality, or to put it another way, one of a kind,” emailed Frederick Slate. “But there also seems to be an implication when we use it that we are talking about something that stands out, that’s worth talking about, that isn’t mundane. Do these two sentences with some editing comprise a sufficient definition of iconic?”

An icon is an ideal, a standard, a lasting symbol, someone or something worthy of veneration. Elton John is an iconic popular music piano player. Jimi Hendrix was an iconic rock guitarist. Coca-Cola is an iconic beverage.

What of the guitarist for the Black Crowes? That’s a hard no. First, I don’t know his name, and I bet most of you don’t, either. Second, I don’t think what he does clearly puts him on a higher plane from run-of-the-mill guitarists.

What was iconic 50 years ago might not be iconic today. Not just because people at the top of their game get replaced, but because the definition of “iconic” has changed.

Back in the day, icons were strictly religious symbols/artistic representations. Somewhere along the way, people applied the word to examples of people we aspire to be like. Objects, too. Andy Warhol’s painting of a Campbell’s soup can is iconic in that it’s representative of the pop art movement.

But then, like all good things, “icon” got stretched into so many different directions that it has lost all sense of meaning.

Gazillions of companies are named Iconic (fill in the blank) and market every manner of product or service. Blankets, cosmetics, clothing, songs, sunglasses. Just about anything you can think of has been called “iconic.” With the possible exception of this column, that is, today’s headline notwithstanding.

But are they really iconic?

Like “bespoke,” “iconic” has been rendered meaningless by overuse and exaggeration.

You can thank marketers for this. If you want to gin up interest in a film or a soft drink, you refer to it as iconic. I roll my eyes when here-today-gone-tomorrow 18-year-old Auto-Tuned singers refer to themselves as “artists.” Yes, that probably was derived from “recording artists,” but do they know that?

My advice would be to try “popular” or “famous” and forget “iconic.”

Apropos of nothing

The beauty of choosing to write a column, picking a topic with what can only be described as loosey-goosey parameters and having no one to tell me to stop is that I will on rare occasion decide to write about something that has absolutely nothing to do with grammar.

This next topic, however, does have everything to do with one of my other obsessions: cheese.

April 12 is National Grilled Cheese Day, and Pepperidge Farm, the people who make the part of the sandwich whose role is to keep the molten cheese from burning one’s fingers, commissioned a double-opt-in survey of 5,000 Americans ― 100 from each state ― to determine the average number of grilled cheese sandwiches eaten per capita per annum.

Nationwide, the average is 36. In Illinois, it’s 35. We in Illinois have many excellent food choices, so I get that.

What is shocking is that in Wisconsin, whose cultural identity revolves around cheese, people eat on average just 32 grilled cheese sandwiches per year. But when you consider that Wisconsinites eat cheese in more forms than any other state that I can think of ― as sauces, dips, slices, cubes, blocks, curds, cottage style, fondues, pizzas, pierogies, etc. ― one begins to understand that the grilled cheese sandwich is just one item from the cheesy buffet table.

I imagine in other states with smaller cow populations, the grilled cheese with individually-wrapped cheese-food slices might be one’s only encounter with the food group. “Make American cheese Great Again” might be a catchy slogan in those states.

So, which state’s people eat more grilled cheeses than the rest? Texas. The survey gives no indication why, but my guess is that any sandwich containing cheese in Texas ends up a melty mess because of the hellish temperatures down there.

Write carefully, and be sure to place your cheese around the perimeter of your sandwich and then burn it. It’s the only way to eat it.

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim’s book, “Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage,” at Write him at and put “Grammar Moses” in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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