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The word "fascination" has two senses in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

a very strong attraction, that makes something very interesting

the state of being very attracted to and interested in somebody/something

Which sense is intended in the following sentence, which concerns the funnel-web spider?

although no deaths have been recorded since the introduction of an antivenom in 1981, it remains an icon of fear and fascination for Sydneysiders.

https://australian.museum/learn/animals/spiders/funnel-web-spiders-group/

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  • fascination has a range of meanings. You should probably downplay the relevance of attractive in your cited context, which explicitly "primes" the reader's interpretation with preceding fear. It's the "Rabbit transfixed in the headlights" kind of fascination - implying danger. Sydneysiders don't really want to think about antivenom (because it makes them think about potentially lethal snakebite), but it fascinates them (they can't easily turn their attention aside; it's like a magic spell "transfixing" them). Commented Nov 24, 2022 at 13:06
  • ,,, oh, okay. The "fascinating icon" is the funnel-web spider, not the antivenom. But you can see my point, I hope. Commented Nov 24, 2022 at 13:08
  • Does "fascination" mean the state of being transfixed or the quality of transfixing someone in this context?
    – Apollyon
    Commented Nov 24, 2022 at 13:10
  • I don't know how to answer that. How would the overall meaning of the cited text change depending on which of your definitions you applied? Or are you asking some technical question about "parts of speech" (which I also couldn't answer! :) Commented Nov 24, 2022 at 13:14
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    Ask yourself if 'fear' means that the object possesses fear as a quality, or invokes it in others, and that will give you your answer.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Nov 24, 2022 at 16:07

1 Answer 1

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This sentence is badly written, but can be parsed to make sense, with some stretching.

In the phrase, "X is an icon of Z", "of" indicates that X represents Z. This structure and function is part of the lexical entry of the word "icon", not how "of" normally functions.

Compare this with the phrase "a creature/beast/insect/thing of fear and fascination", where "of" clearly means that it has the power to inspire fear and fascination in others. This is the normal meaning of "of". It does not indicate representation of fear or fascination here.

So, if we parse the word "of" in the original with the meaning in the paragraph above, it means that the funnel-web spider is an icon (of something not mentioned), and that it inspires fear and fascination. With this parsing, it would not mean that it is iconic of fear and fascination.

We can imagine that the sentence was originally written with "thing", but someone decided that "icon" was a more interesting word, and didn't check that it still made sense.

So, an unfortunate error with the special function of "of" after the word "icon", which is different from its normal function after most other nouns.

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  • Do you mean that "X is an icon of Y" indicates X has the property of Y, and that the original is not well written because it conveys that the funnel-web spider has fear?
    – Apollyon
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 3:29
  • @Apollyon Outside this sentence, "X is an icon of Z" means "X is a symbol that people generally understand as representing Z". It doesn't mean that the two share any properties. A spider doesn't have the properties of a city, for instance. It's simply a symbol associated with the city. THAT SAID, something can be an icon of something because it has that property, like Angelina Jolie being an icon of beauty. But it's also possible for there to be no connection whatsoever, like a big apple being iconic of New York City.
    – gotube
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 5:49
  • Thank you. So why is it incorrect to say the funnel-web spider is an icon of fear, meaning that it represents fear? What about calling it an icon of horror?
    – Apollyon
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 5:54
  • @Apollyon It certainly can, and I hope I haven't suggested it couldn't. What I said was that that's not the meaning in your example sentence. We know that because the spider is definitely not an icon of fascination. That's to say, nobody considers the spider as an iconic symbol representing fascination. That's how we know it also doesn't mean it's an icon of fear.
    – gotube
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 6:03
  • So you are saying the spider doesn't represent fear? Is there any semantic reason for that? Does it make sense to say the spider represents horror?
    – Apollyon
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 6:35

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