Almost Famous

Confusion over "infamy" and "notoriety" abounds

You probably don’t want to become “infamous.” but you may want to be “notorious.” The adjective “infamous” has traditionally meant “evil or villainous,” as in “the infamous Osama bin Laden.” Yet many people, most of them young, have been using “infamous” to mean, as one Urban Dictionary entry has it, “someone who everyone knows, but nobody really likes or pays attention too.” (“Too?” Should one take sloppily written definitions seriously?) Other times, it’s used just to mean “famous”; one publication refers to “the infamous golden popcorn trophy” given at the MTV Music Awards. Not a touch of evil in that. And no one uses the noun form of “infamous” incorrectly. (Think of “a date which will live in infamy.”)

That MTV award, however, may be “notorious,” which traditionally has meant simply “widely known.” But “notorious” has gained a negative connotation, as in “the notorious child-killer.” You can still use “notorious” to mean “famous,” but make sure your context makes clear you are not condemning. “Notoriety,” the noun form of “notorious,” is often just “fame,” but is gaining more negative usage, too. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage warns, “it always seems to have a certain piquancy, a certain bite, from its association with persons and things of undesirable character.” Be alert to what your readers might infer.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.