Don’t waste our icons

This is the year of the 70th anniversary of one of my favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, the Hollywood premiere of which was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on August 15, 1939, four years before I was born. I saw the film for the first time when I was around eight or nine I believe. It also happens that my wife and I were married on August 15, 1965. Not to be sexist, but the male gender is not known for recollection of such important occasions,  so each year the movie’s anniversary coincides, which gives me a great mnemonic device to ensure I observe my own anniversary event properly.

401px-Wizard_of_oz_movie_posterSpeaking of observing an event properly, Warner Bros. Entertainment has had a Wizard of Oz Hot Air Balloon  and Ruby Slipper Collection traveling around the country, and on September 29 will release a 70th anniversary high definition edition of the movie. The press releases issued in conjunction with the anniversary celebration state that: “Over the last seven decades, the film has indelibly woven itself into America’s cultural consciousness”, and “The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved and iconic motion pictures of all time filled with timeless sentiments and values cherished by multiple generations…more than one billion consumers have experienced the classic story of Dorothy and friends in the Land of Oz.”

This got me thinking about icons. It started with the Greeks. What else is new? The Greek word eikōn, εἰκών  from another Greek word meaning “to resemble” simply meant “likeness”. The etymology proceeded from the Greek to the Latin “icon”, a word then applied to depictions of major religious figures. These “icons” were venerated, a touchy point as far back as the 8th century.  St. Basil the Great (329-379) – yes, there are icons of him –  tried to explain the distinction: “If I point to a statue of Caesar and ask you ‘Who is that?’, your answer would properly be, ‘It is Caesar.’ When you say such you do not mean that the stone itself is Caesar, but rather, the name and honor you ascribe to the statue passes over to the original, the archetype, Caesar himself.”  In the 16th century the word came into English usage in the sense of simile, likeness, image.  This is also the meaning that came to associate itself with “computer icons” and the like. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is just since the mid 20th century that persons and things looked up to by many and “venerated” in a non-religious way started to be referred to as  “icons”.

One source finds some 18,000 “iconic” references in news stories, and another 30,000 for “icon”.  Suzy Freeman-Greene, in her article of September 15 in the online version of the Australian newspaper The Age refers to “iconomania”, in a time when the word is being applied to just about anything and anyone to the point that its meaningfulness is at issue. And retaining the value of its meaning is an issue. The importance of icons is that complex concepts can be conveyed and achetypes defined through them.  As such icons serve an important communications function.

When we speak of journalistic integrity we can invoke Walter Cronkite as an  icon. Mahatma Gandhi can be pointed to as an icon for non-violent resistance. Thomas Edison, an icon of invention and innovation. He was also called “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, which leads us back to The Wizard of Oz.

In the prologue to his new book Finding Oz author Evan I. Schwartz refers to L. Frank Baum’s classic in terms of it being a great American myth. In its feature about Baum and The Wizard of Oz the Smithsonian Institution online magazine states: “Today, images and phrases from The Wizard of Oz are so pervasive, so unparalleled in their ability to trigger personal memories and musings, that it’s hard to conceive of The Wizard of Oz as the product of one man’s imagination.” The Library of Congress names The Wizard of Oz as the most-watched film in history.

There are a number of words and phrases that have entered into the vernacular resulting from the cultural impact of The Wizard of Oz, for example: Yellow Brick Road. noun. 1. (figuratively or humorously) A proverbial path to a promised land of one’s hopes and dreams.  This example about sums up what an icon is all about, i.e., conveniently summing up something  not reasonably expressed otherwise, like a mnemonic. It would be a shame to waste them.

(A note about copyright. C&C is assiduous with respect to not using copyrighted materials without appropriate permissions. The Wizard of Oz Movie Poster reproduced here is in the public domain by virtue of its publication between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice.)

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/09/20/dont-waste-our-icons/

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