Friday, October 27, 2023

Words Reclaimed

 For about fifteen years centered on 2003, I often encountered the word "emblematic" in newspapers. The first time it appeared to mean "exemplary". Other times it might have meant "symbolic". I came to think that there must be a tool called "an emblematic" to provide a filler for tired journalists. The OED acknowledges the word, but I hadn't encountered a case I thought it suited.

Last weekend, in Morality and Conflict by Stuart Hampshire, I read

Certain minutiae of behaviour, as they strike a stranger, may be emblematic and have the right or wrong emotional significance for those who understand the behaviour, 'understand' in the sense that one understands an idiom in a spoken language.

That use of "emblematic" strikes me as just right.

More recently, one encounters the term "iconic" everywhere. Usually it means "famous", I think. I would be happy to restrict it to a form of ecclesiastical art, to researches into the ancient city of Iconium, or to code written in the Icon programming language. But those who write for the public are more liberal with it.

 Also last weekend, I encountered a case where "iconic" seemed to fit. In the chapter "Early Latin Trinitarian Theology" of Augustine and Nicene Theology, Michel Barnes classifies Faustinus's "Nicene" Trinitarian theology as having a

logic that is neither power-based nor substance based but iconic.

That is to say, Faustinus relies on

Scriptural descriptions of the Son's iconic or visual relationship to the Father



  1. You are a person after Mr Gums' heart. He regularly rails against the debasement of the English language. I agree to a point but I also accept that language is a living thing and some of the words he defends now had different meanings in past centuries. .
    That said, I am sympathetic to the cause. Iconic is an interesting one. It is way overused which weakens its metaphoric power to express something special or significant. Hmm, am l debasing language here? Oh well!

    1. Some fights are simply lost. I still sneer at "epicenter" used as if "epi" were an intensive rather than a locative. But I don't grind my teeth over it.