A cliche is a phrase or expression that has lost its meaning or impact due to overuse. I think the word iconic has become a one word cliche.
The bottom line, going forward, all that glitters is not gold, are near meaningless phrases that should be warred against. We as writers must say what we mean, directly, concisely, without pulling up stale or dead imagery. Sacramento’s Tower Bridge illustrates how a good word can go bad.
Our Tower Bridge is now universally described on-line and in print as iconic, usually in a local vein. But what is the bridge, really? That’s what we want to write. Is it a landmark? It is historic? Symbolic of the area? It may be described as distinctive, a local favorite, or a span that bridges two counties. Perhaps as an Art Deco monument. But iconic? What does that mean? Today, well, it means nothing.
George Orwell once wrote to “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.” That’s harsh, tough advice. And while we many never achieve such spartan writing, it is a goal worth struggling toward.
Google’s Ngram Viewer shows the tremendous rise in icon’s popularity (external link) over the decades, or rather, its overuse. An illustration from the same is above. Click for a larger image.
January 20, 2016 update. I think “emblematic” is another good choice.