My dad spent most of his career editing copy at the StarTribune, and doing a damn good job of it. He is known as something of a crank on the subject of English usage. I am my father's daughter.
I think the words "icon" and "legend" should be given ten years of prison time without parole. Usage would only be allowed if the former referred to a religious image or small picture on a computer screen, and the latter to a mythic story.
"Iconic" would be permitted, as in, "Michael Jackson was an iconic figure in the black community, representing ..." "Legendary" would be permitted, as, in, "Walter Cronkite was a legendary newscaster, doing everything from [blah] to [blah blah]."
But can't we think of better ways to describe famous people? Paris Hilton might be more accurately described as an overprivileged, underweight, peroxided, promiscuous, partygoing heiress than a "society icon". Tom Cruise might be described as a religious nut, a famous actor, debatably a control freak, rather than a "legend" (or do you have to be over a certain age to be a legend?) Maybe he is only a celebrity at this point; maybe he'd have to be dead to be a legend at this stage of his career.
Although the excess of coverage of Michael Jackson's death would have been hard to put up with in any case, hearing him called either an "icon" or a "legend" every other sentence -- or even in the same sentence -- is what made me feel like pulling my hairs out one by one.
When singer James Brown died (I had to resist saying 'legendary singer James Brown'), one network news station was interviewing people standing outside the Apollo Theater. Person after person stated, as the reason they mourned him so, is that he was "such an icon". What did that mean to them? An icon is only an icon if it's an icon of something, if it represents something larger than itself. I'm sure Brown was an important figure in those peoples' lives, otherwise they wouldn't have turned out in such numbers to stand outside the theater all day. But I still don't know, specifically, what he meant to them.
Call a guy a palooka or a king. Call him fop, genius, stooge, gentleman. Call him anything. Just don't call him a legend.