Of iconosmosis and poster children

In the beginning was the image. What's that you say? Not quite right? Oh, of course - in the beginning was the WORD.

But images - or icons, to use a hip Greek-derived synonym - have a lively role in our culture as not-words, as little anti-words that work in places where actual words don't quite fit.

"Icon" is particularly on my mind in part because of a couple of big acquisitions in the telecoms field that have caught Wall Street's attention. A few weeks ago, SBC, the onetime Baby Bell phone company, announced its plan to swallow up Ma Bell. Ed Whitacre, SBC's chairman, told reporters at the time that the acquisition would be a way of "preserving an American icon."

Then last week, Verizon announced its acquisition of MCI, a company that at least one talking head described as "an icon." Surely he had heard the Whitacre comment; perhaps this is becoming the standard praise for a once-great entity now about to disappear.

Remembering that MCI went through a phase as "WorldCom," I might have thought another "image" term was called for - "poster child," as in "poster child for corporate misdoings." WorldCom's debacle was part of a wave of corporate megascandals, including Enron and HealthSouth. Hmm, is there a relationship between "icon" and "poster child"?

"Poster child" was, back when I was a child myself, the cute but needy kid pictured on a poster for some sort of fundraising drive. More recently, "poster child" has come to be used ironically and negatively, as in a recent Slate article on allegedly xenophobic, protectionist Slovenia as "poster child for the new Europe."

With all this idolizing and iconizing, there are those who are simply put off by the use of "icon" to mean anything other than an image of a "sacred or sanctified Christian personage," as in the Eastern Church. A professor friend reports that he has a Russian colleague aggrieved by the casual use of "icon." My friend tries to avoid this usage himself, he mentions in an e-mail, but, he confesses, "I'm afraid I myself have fallen into the trap on a number of occasions, being a regular computer user. (What else is one supposed to call those little images on one's desktop?)"

What, indeed? The cute little pictures of the trash can and the file folder and the rest, first developed by Doug Englebart for the XeroxPARC Alto in the late 1970s and popularized by Apple Computer, helped make computers accessible to the wider public. Without exactly revering these icons, one can nonetheless appreciate that they are very, very useful.

Time was when pictures were used on signs because people couldn't read. They identified the barber by his pole and the fishmonger by the picture of a fish (and perhaps by the smell). Nowadays most people can read, but our circuits are so overloaded that we rely on icons and logos - another Greek-derived term - to guide us.

In an unfamiliar environment, a well-known logo can signal that we aren't that far from home after all.

A few years ago I visited Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria, a sort of walled city as theme park. The tradition of signage with pictures rather than words was maintained. As I walked down the street one morning, I noticed an elegant gold-toned shop sign caught in the sun - could it have been gold leaf? Something about it was familiar. I looked again and realized I'd recognized, almost subliminally, the well-known double-arched "M."

I'd found the McDonald's in Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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