What makes an icon
Reyna Lim | Friday, December 2, 2022
There are a few words in my lexicon that have snuck their way into my lingo much to my woeful resignation. They say the way a person speaks tells you everything you need to know about them — I like to think that I can play at some meek facade of depth and intellect when needed, with lengthy words I credit to SAT prep and the odd Latin saying that I picked up from movies. But the merciless grip of the stampede that is social media introduces at least a dozen outlandish pieces of vocabulary each month.
It starts with a commitment to irony. In mockery of the way the English language is slowly deteriorating, I’ll begin to use words like slay or dubs to hyper-exaggerate a situation. I swear, the innuendo here is that my use of the word comes with the precedent that I am joking. Until I’m not.
One of the most humbling moments I’ve had in my college career occurred when I was visiting a professor for office hours. He very eloquently provided a helpful explanation for my questions, and between my mental scramble to make sense of what he was saying while jotting down every economic theory he had referenced, I had a eureka moment where the problem I had spent the entire day grappling with suddenly made sense. My excitement got the best of me. “Oh,” I blurted out. “Based.”
The incredulous look he gave me is permanently engraved in my memory. Just like these words have a way of etching themselves into my daily dialogue, until one day you find yourself speaking to your highly-achieved, beyond-respectable professor the way you did last night with your friends while planning your Friday evening. To my professor, based is but a common English word usually used with some sort of subject or predicate. Movies are based on books. A company is based in Chicago. But by some arbitrary, collective judgment made by pop culture and the internet, another word that started off as an ironic joke is now one I unironcically use by habit.
Another word became a topic of debate for my friends and I at dinner the other day — iconic. The word is beat to death and reminds you of that girl on the Internet who rambles on about overhyped Manhattan restaurants that serve you subpar food for insulting prices. You’ll roll your eyes every time you hear it. Nonetheless, as we all reluctantly agreed, we can’t stop using it.
What concerns and humors me is the fact that while we have decidedly significant beacons of generations past to refer to as iconic, our very own generation seems to offer very few moments of substance in comparison. This is in no way a belittlement of the strides we’ve made in redefining world views. I would sound like a broken record talking about how impressed I am of our generation’s conviction and resilience — that’s not what this is about. During our conversation, my friends and I reflected on the defining cultural moments that we could most easily recall from the last few years. While we cite The Beatles’ genius messages of anti-war in their music or the grace and elegance of Audrey Hepburn as iconic, the tokens of “Gen Z culture” are decisively more offbeat.
Perhaps I could argue that we actually live in quite riveting times. Scroll through any one of the seemingly endless variety of media platforms or eavesdrop on the next table’s breakfast chats at the diner, and it becomes all too apparent how fascinated our society is with topics that have arguably zero stake in our daily lives: Britney Spears, freed at last; Lady Gaga’s meat dress; the reception of Bennifer 2.0; the Oprah/Harry/Megan interview. We are, reluctantly or willingly, in the merciless grip of pop culture and the endless spawning of out-of-touch celebrity moments or reality TV shows that surely cost us a handful of brain cells as we sit through each episode.
It’s the irony and hilarity of the idea of our children one day looking back at Lady Gaga’s said meat dress and calling it iconic, or whatever word would have popped up by then to replace it. Or maybe the romanticized, impressionable view we have of preceding times will translate directly to the next generations and they’ll start idolizing the pop culture moments we now find so ridiculous. If you asked me, though, nothing beats waking up in the morning to a New York Times headline debunking whether Lea Michele can or cannot read — I wouldn’t change that for the world.
Reyna Lim is a sophomore double majoring in finance and English. She enjoys writing about her unsolicited opinions, assessing celebrity homes in Architectural Digest videos and collecting lip gloss. Reach out with coffee bean recommendations and ‘80s playlists at [email protected].
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.