In search of lost time - Frank McNally on horology, folk-music, and the campaign to ban ‘iconic’

Time for action

Within five minutes on Thursday, by curious coincidence, I received emails about (1) a 1970s Irish folk music album that “was long considered lost” and (2) a 1980s Cartier watch whose whereabouts for the last 40 years had been “shrouded in mystery”.

The other thing these two very different objects had in common was the excited language their rediscoveries inspired, with both press releases scouring the thesaurus for synonyms of “famous” and “important”.

The album – Celtic Folkweave by Mick Hanly and Micheál Ó Domhnaill – although largely ignored on its 1974 debut, was now described as “iconic”, “cult”, and “seminal”.

This paled alongside the press release about the watch, however. We were told that the “Cartier Cheich”, as it’s known, was a “classic”, “mythical”, and “truly unique” timepiece.


Not content with that, Sotheby’s auction house (whose excitement can be part excused by the fact that it had just sold it for a million euro), also declared it “one of the world’s great watch unicorns”.

As for the supposed disappearances of both items, the master tape of the album was long thought to have been destroyed in 1982, while the watch, created in 1983 for the Paris-Dakar Rally, had been of whereabouts unknown since soon afterwards.

Folk music and the mysteries of horology rarely intersect (except perhaps on the Sandy Denny ballad “Who knows where the time goes?”). But I wonder if the two things might have disappeared into the same 1980s time-warp. Whatever about an “iconic cult album”, a “mythical unicorn watch” must be capable of anything.


I’m reminded that it is just over a decade now since the Diary unilaterally banned the word “iconic” (a restriction temporarily lifted today only so that we can review the success of the measure) on grounds of gross misuse.

When I first declared the fatwa in 2011, a sceptical letter-writer on this page pointed out that our Saturday edition of the same week had included the following references:

“His older brother, Eamon … was an iconic figure in broadcasting”; “New York may be an iconic metropolis …”; “Style icon Daphne Guinness”; “at the iconic Chelsea Hotel”; “on the iconic anti-Western film Paris, Texas”; and “with the iconic and breathtaking Cliffs of Moher”.

As the writer signed off: “Good luck with the ban.” And it’s true that elsewhere in this newspaper, in the decade since, the cursed adjective has proven as hard to eradicate as Japanese knotweed. But the overall trend is encouraging.

According to an archive search for 2011, there were a staggering 1,405 “iconics” in our pages that year. In 2016, a high-risk period for outbreaks of the adjective, this had fallen slightly to 1,361. And five years later, in 2021, the downward trajectory continued, to 1,137.

But so far in 2022, there has been a dramatic decline, with a mere 556 occurrences to September 30th. I realise I have given last-quarter figures an unwitting early boost here. Even so, barring a pre-Christmas splurge, annual output looks certain to fall well short of four figures.

Towards which end, this column’s ban is herewith reinstated.


Returning to the mostly English tradition of eccentric pronunciations (Diary, Thursday), reader Andrew O’Donovan reminds me of an Irish example: the habit of “(certain!) Ranelagh locals to pronounce the first syllable of their village as “wren”.

That must be in imitation of the London version. But the Earl of Ranelagh also left his name to Paris, which now has a Rue de Ranelagh and an eponymous metro station.

And when I got off at that stop last year, I was amused to note that while the announcer pronounced the prefix “Ran”, he both omitted the middle syllable and refused the right of the letter “g” to remain silent. The combined result was that his Ranelagh rhymed with “handbag”, more or less.

As for my original point, on how TCD’s Berkeley Library is pronounced to rhyme with “Berzerkly” by locals, and not with “darkly” (as English people and the original George Berkeley would have it), Andrew says that the old pronunciation is still used by some in Trinity, “especially the faculty”.

He adds that a friend plays on the Barkeley/Berkeley confusion by calling it “Burkeley” instead.

Here might be a way for the university to defuse the student protest over Bishop Berkeley’s slave-owning past. Another illustrious Trinity man, Edmund Burke, has a statue out front but not yet a library named after him. In keeping with his role as the “father of conservatism”, he would surely lend himself to a minimalist rebranding.

He was on the right side of the slavery issue (just about). And he has already given us his name as an adjective, Burkean. Why not now also make it an adverb? In achieving progress gradually and with caution, the university could henceforward be said to do things “Burkely”, starting with the library.