From The Side of the Road… and the first noun to be retired is…

Last week, I gave all publicists and artists who write their own bios in third person fair warning that in addition to the annual retirement of some of our most beloved adjectives, this year will mark the first retirement of a noun. The ceremony won’t take place until the IBMA World of Bluegrass in late September, which will at least give you an opportunity to use this noun to your heart’s content between now and then.

Before we discuss the noun itself, I wanted to respond to some reader comments about last week’s column. Some were wondering why the IBMA would seek to limit words that publicists can use, and in effect act as “word police” for the writers of our music’s promotional material. Some even questioned whether this story was even authentic, or simply another “joke.”

I can assure you that it’s very real, or it would be if it were true. Or, as someone once said to me after forwarding a fictitious political email: “Even if it isn’t true, it makes a good point.” I plan to address the issue of the IBMA “word police” in a video next week. 

Getting back to the noun, before we learned which noun would be the first to be honored with retirement, word had leaked out (literally) that “whiz” would not be chosen this year. This may be disappointing to some, including Jack Tottle, who recently pointed out that it was inappropriate—or perhaps just lazy—to refer to Chris Thile as a “mandolin whiz.”

Here’s where it’s worth pointing out that this process of retirement of adjectives and nouns in bluegrass prose-writing is not a statement of disrespect towards these words. Quite the opposite: these are words that have served us so well and have been used in so many press releases, reviews, and website bios that they deserved to be retired, like Willie Mays’ #24. I’ll agree that referring to “hard-driving,” for example, as “the Willie Mays of bluegrass adjectives” is more than a bit of a stretch, but if it’s helpful to you to visualize the honor that comes with this retirement ceremony, feel free. 

As I pointed out in my original article on the subject, after retirement, these adjectives are then displayed permanently in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame’s Retired Adjectives Wing, built a few years ago. The first noun will be displayed in the brand new “Retired Noun Nook,” just off the adjectives wing (make a sharp right at “dynamic”).

I think we can agree that “whiz” is not yet deserving of official retirement, at least not yet. It has never been in frequent enough usage to have attained classic status, and that’s just as well. “Whiz” is a word we naturally expect to be followed by “kid,” the kind of word you would use to describe a precocious eight-year-old banjo player who had just learned a blistering version of Cumberland Gap. It’s not a word you would really want in your bio, unless of course you happen to have a precocious eight-year-old in your band. Also, “banjo whiz” sounds a little like spreadable banjo in a jar (which is going to be a groundbreaking product as soon as someone develops it).

But enough of this teasing, according to this week’s announcement, the noun that will be the first to be retired, and the first to be reverently placed in the Retired Noun Nook is “icon.”

I’ll be honest, I won’t shed a tear to see this one taken out of circulation, but I’m not sure it should have been first among nouns. Perhaps it will someday deserve its spot in the nook, but I think it has generally been both misused and overused. Everyone is an icon now, from a “songwriting icon” (Gordon Lightfoot), to a “fiddle icon” (Kenny Baker), to a “ping pong icon” (Andrew Baggaley).

A true icon is a piece of religious art with special significance, used especially in Eastern and Byzantine forms of Christianity, but the icon itself is more a medium for worship, rather than an object of it. Those who use them would refer to them as “windows into the holy.” Doesn’t that make referring to Elvis as an “icon” seem a little inappropriate and/or just weird?

Icons can also refer to those thumbnails on your computer or phone, linking to apps. That doesn’t seem very Elvis-like or Bill Monroe-like for that matter, either.

I think people started out meaning to use the word “idol,” which also begins with “i.” Often, “icon” is just used where “legend,” “celebrity,” “superstar,” or sometimes “whiz” would be more fitting. 

As I said, above, though, “icon” is fully available to you between now and the end of September, so feel free to call anyone an “icon” you feel like, from your barber (“hair icon”), your 8th grade math teacher (“junior high icon”), to Mark O’Connor, who started as a whiz before becoming iconic. “Iconic,” by the way is still available as an adjective until further notice. Use with restraint.

See you at the ceremony in Raleigh.