In light of how frequently people seem to be using the word iconic today, what are some alternatives which are perhaps more apt and more accurate? I've always associated the word with paintings in a church, which have that certain iconic look to them. I guess you'd call it a signature- or highly stylized look, and not very realistic.

I've provided a few "before and after" examples below, but I welcome suggestions for improvement; that is, better alternatives. Possibly you prefer the word iconic and would not seek to substitute another word for it. That's OK too.

The O. J. Simpson trial is the iconic controversial trial from the 90s.


The O. J. Simpson trial is representative of controversial trials from the 90s.


Snowboarder Joe Schmo's performance in the 2014 Winter Olympics was iconic for that relatively new event.


Snowboarder Joe Schmo's performance in the 2014 Winter Olympics was the quintessence of that relatively new event.


The iconic romantic comedy from the 90s has to be "Four Weddings and a Funeral," starring Andie McDowell and Hugh Grant.


"Four Weddings and a Funeral," starring Andie McDowell and Hugh Grant, is the epitome of romantic comedies from the 90s.

Perhaps the appropriate alternative word or expression varies from context to context. If so, could you also explain grammatically why that is so? I'm not much of a grammarian, so please be simplistic, if possible.

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    This looks to me like a dup of What is a good word for “best example”?, but I'm all out of closevotes. Anyway, here's the evidence to support OP's "how frequently people seem to be using the word iconic today". Prevalence really has increased astonishingly. Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 22:17
  • @FumbleFingers: Downvote? Me? I'm hurt deeply. (Just kidding.) Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 22:35
  • Seriously, I wouldn't dream of downvoting a perfectly good question like this. I admit I might be tempted to downvote the umpteenth question on When should I use “a” vs “an”?, but even there one has to bear in mind that the crappy built-in "site search" facility is a bit worthless when it specifically excludes the very words (a/an) you'd be likely to search for. But surely you'll admit that iconic is a highly relevant (and, strangely, missing) word for that earlier question? Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 22:56
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    @FumbleFingers It sure seems to be the iconic word for this generation!
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 1:09

2 Answers 2


An icon was originally a picture or representation of a saint or Christ. One of the reasons icons have been condemned by certain churches/religions is that they were venerated themselves as sacred. I agree that the word icon is used all too easily by people, who often exaggerate for effect. I would use a less exagerrative replacement.

What to use instead? One understated way of saying something similar in meaning is the picture, the image, models and typifies or is the essence of: Four Weddings... is the picture of romantic comedies from the 90s.

The perfect example: Four Weddings... is the perfect example of romantic comedies from the 90s.

Those don't hype it too much.

If you want the perfect word, context is important.

Epitome: typical of or possessing to a high degree the features of a whole class (exemplification, quintessence/quintessential, and the ultimate are also dramatic words to express the idea.)

I think the apotheosis is an amusing way of reflecting on the hype: the elevation or exaltation to the rank of a god.

If you don't like iconic, maybe considering the less lofty words for representative would suit you.

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    @WayfaringStranger: Your statement truly boggled me, given that I'd tend to regard archetypical as no more than an ignorant affectation (OED does have a listing for it, but all it does is provide a few citations to prove it exists, and point you back to the full definitions under archetypal). Actually, your NGrams is misleading because you compared the single word archetypical to the string "is the archetypal". If you make it a "fair fight" (one-on-one words) the picture looks... Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 0:33
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    @Susan - Prototypical also carries the connotation of imperfect or unfinished.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 1:11
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    @FumbleFingers: True, the comparison of phrase to word was improper. However, no matter how much I dislike the term, usage of archetypical has been rising in recent decades. Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 1:37
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    @WayfaringStranger - what an awful word. It makes me think someone said archetypal incorrectly, and a new word was born. Very interesting! Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 1:51
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    @Susan: Actually, I find archetypal kinda good. It can mean, after all, "perfect or typical as a specimen of something" (Dictionary.com, definition 1). It's a little highfalutin, but if I hear "iconic" one more time I think I'll start kicking some &^%$# and taking names! Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 6:09

Historic could be used instead of iconic to suggest a top athlete's performance as being particularly memorable as in:

The ice-figure champions Jayne Torvill and Dean Thomson's historic free programme performed to Ravel's Bolero at Sarajevo winter Olympics 1984, which earned the couple 12 perfect 6.0 marks. A feat never achieved either before or since, three decades on.

Many supporters would call Torvil and Dean the emblems of British ice-skating

Or for a team such as: The emblematic Jamaica bobsleigh team at Calgary 1988, who still represent the concept of the underdog who comes out on top or if you prefer, whose popularity and simpatia outshine their actual performance.

Vocabulary.com gives a good explanation on its use:

Something emblematic is symbolic. Empty buildings are emblematic of a city in decline, and a crown is emblematic of royalty.

If you know that an emblem is a visual symbol, then you won't be surprised that emblematic things stand for other things. In fact, the word emblem comes from the French word for symbol. Something emblematic represents a larger issue, good or bad. Sometimes emblematic is used for things that are excellent examples. An A student is an emblematic student, and a war hero is an emblematic soldier. Emblematic people are symbols of what others aspire to be.


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