One-line summary

Totemic might be a modish choice to replace the overused and much maligned iconic, but it is still rather rare in comparison.

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Iconic: a massively overused word?

On 20 January, that universal pundit Stephen Fry tweeted: “How would it be if there were a media-wide moratorium on the use of the word ‘iconic’ for the next ten years? Just a suggestion.”

I’m sure many would second his suggestion.

But in any case, it seems that a minority are voting with their tongues and using a different mot du jour instead: totemic.

(I’ll deal with whether they mean the same in a future blog.)

Totems and totemic

A Facebook friend alerted me a few months ago to what he thought was the irresistible rise of this adjective and the noun it derives from, totem.


So, it was perhaps unsurprising to find, amid the typical luvvie blether so aptly parodied in Private Eye, Benedict Cumberbatch’s description (Radio Times, 15-21 November 2014) of the martyred Alan Turing:

“He wasn’t someone who purposefully [sic] put himself in the way of things as a protest – he was just a great role model for anyone who’s different or feels different…And even as his body was morphing he was doing work on how the environment causes cellular structures to change. I mean, God knows, he probably would be celebrated as someone like Bill Gates. Without a doubt, he would be held as a totem of the modern world.”

Not just an icon, mark you, oh, no, sirree! A very totem. And then, blow me, if in Melvyn Bragg’s recent (and very informative) programme about the legacy of Magna Carta on January 8, 2015 the two words, the jaded, raddled cliché and the not-yet-but-give-it-time-and-it-will-be cliché were metaphorically squaring up to each other in a sort of modern logomachy.

(See further down for a transcript of the relevant sections: totem / totemic / icon / iconic each appear once).

Totemic may be on the rise: only time will tell. However, for the moment it is still rather unusual. In the Oxford English Corpus it is outnumbered getting on for 20 times by iconic. And in fact they share only two noun totemic-figurescollocations: status and figure (in ratios of 53:1 and 14:1 respectively). Also, totemic figure as often refers literally to artistic works having some affinity with totems as it does metaphorically to people who symbolize something.

On Google, a comparison of the exact string “iconic figure” accentuates the difference in numbers: 643,000 against 11,000. And again, totemic figure is often literal.

Totemic, then, looks like a word to watch: it has not yet been adulterated by massive overuse, but, by the same token, is still nowhere near to being as often used as its rival.




On the one hand, the noble Lord referred to Magna Carta as follows (about 2 minutes in):

“…It is radical in the way it has been used in innumerable rebellions, uprisings and movements to demand freedom…The original was stuffed with laws about fisheries in the Thames, about foreign immigrants and widows’ rights. At first sight it seems strange that such a document could turn into the great totem of individual liberty.”

Responding to Lord B’s introduction, Professor Nicholas Vincent, a leading Magna Carta scholar from the University of East Anglia (UEA), then says:

“A lot of it increasingly became rather archaic…financial stipulations don’t really bear much relation to reality even by the late thirteenth century. But those totemic clauses, the clauses about sale of justice, denial of justice, right to free judgement, right to judgement by the law of the land, all of those retain their significance.”

Later in the programme, another scholar, Professor Justin Champion, of Royal Holloway, of the University of London, uses the i-word.

Lord B (9.50 minutes in):

“It’s been suggested…There are 63 chapters or statutes or clauses in the original Magna Carta and only a couple are still on the statute book, and therefore its significance is, in today’s world, largely symbolic. What’s your view on that, Justin?”

Professor Champion:

“I think the word symbolic is somehow a bit weak. It’s [slight pause] it’s iconic. And in one respect it doesn’t really matter that precise elements of the clauses have been suspended or transcended because the core principles are concepts, they’re ideas…”

And then further in, the word icon makes an appearance on the lips of journalist and MEP Daniel Hannan (about 17.30 minutes in):

“It became very fashionable in Britain in the twentieth century to debunk all historical icons, and to say ‘Oh, this is all reinvented’, and so on. US historiography didn’t go through that to anything like the same extent.”

(For a bit of light relief, go to about 26.45 minutes in to hear Tony Hancock’s take on Magna Carta.)



  1. As a fellow “Central Belter,” who now lives in California, and someone who in the past was educated in the proper use of English, I sympathize with your apparent tilting at the windmills of the present day misuse of our very rich language. Was it Mill who used the phrase “mediocrity of the masses,” which could be applied to describe those incapable or unwilling to think clearly, and by definition, therefore, to speak and/or write clearly (and concisely, for that matter)?

    We are cursed with something called the (gnostic) media, inhabited by the monkey see–monkey doers, who, like dogs with their bones, light on some meaningless word or phrase and by repetition shake it to death, and then move on to their next “invention.” In the process these “speaker-writers” lead particularly the semi-literate, “technologically advanced” young down the garden path to increasing ignorance. And, of course, who can tolerate (in the proper–not modernist–sense of the word) those political hacks who are masters (and mistresses) of phrases devoid of meaning?

    Apart from people like yourself, who are probably preaching to an already converted choir, what can be done to call out these bastardisers of English, and shame them into foregoing their assault on something right-thinking people cherish and embrace with real passion?


  2. I suppose this is as good a place as any to join in a discussion on the use of English. First, I must say that, coming from the Canadian west coast, I was brought up with an understanding of totems and would find it impossible to use the word ‘totemic’ in any but the literal sense. Totem poles are/were family trees.

    It constantly troubles me that people worldwide feel the need to exaggerate almost everything. 110%, for instance (which is morphing into 150%). Is it even possible that we could return to a more genuine use of descriptive words? But there are so many mis-uses of English which make my teeth ache every time I see or hear them, that I should probably stop reading and listening, or just give up.


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