Say the word icon today and people immediately think of those little squarish pictures they tap or click in order to launch an app on their phones, pads, and computers, but that meaning is relatively new, having originated not long after the advent of personal computing in the late 1970s. Icon actually has its roots in the ancient Greek word eikon, meaning “portrait” (as with a painting) or “reflection” (as in a mirror), and when it first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1572, it meant “visual likeness” and was used in reference to paintings and statues and such. More than two and a half centuries would pass, however, before the word would start taking on the other nuances of meaning with which we contemporary English speakers are familiar. In fact, it wasn't until 1833 that certain Christian sects first used icon in reference to religious devotional images and artifacts. Just a few years after that, though, the word was already being used ironically to refer to anything that people “worship” with uncritical devotion, and by the 1860s, icon had become a synonym for symbol or emblem and had also taken on the sense of “highest example” or “paragon.” It was then another century or so before icon finally became the moniker for the little app launchers that reside on the screens of all those electronic gadgets people currently worship.
©2013 Michael R. Gates