If you run a Google News search for "Michael Jackson" and "idol," you'll get tens of thousands of hits. If you watched any news coverage of the death of MJ, "icon" was the go-to word for describing the King of Pop. Here's Agence France-Presse, for instance:
Michael Jackson is dead after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in yesterday for the tortured music icon revered as the "King of Pop."
Clearly the media use this term to mean someone who is the object of a lot of attention and devotion. But I can't help but think, if that's what they mean to say about Jackson, that "idol" would be a better term.
Both terms are religious or have religious overtones. Here's how one Russian Orthodox web site describes icons:
In the Orthodox Church, icons are sacred images painted on wood, carved in stone, molded in metal, sewn on cloth, or made in any suitable material, which conform to a canonical non-naturalistic style, and which are venerated by the faithful with bows, kisses, incense and lights, with the understanding that the icon itself is not worshipped, but the honor given it is transferred to Christ, the Mother of God, or to whatever saint is depicted thereon.
Now, even if you just use a non-religious definition, I'm not sure it's the right word. Here's what Random House says:
-noun 1.a picture, image, or other representation. 2.Eastern Church. a representation of some sacred personage, as Christ or a saint or angel, painted usually on a wood surface and venerated itself as sacred. 3.a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it. 4.Computers. a picture or symbol that appears on a monitor and is used to represent a command, as a file drawer to represent filing. 5.Semiotics. a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.
Which of those definitions covers the media's use of the term?
National Review's Jonah Goldberg didn't enjoy the media rush to sanctify Jackson with the use of the term:
An icon, technically speaking, is a religious symbol deserving of reverence and adoration. The networks may not have intended to use the word that way, but they certainly showed an unseemly amount of reverence and adoration for the man.
What do you think of the use of the term icon for anything other than a representation of an object or person?