The Grammarphobia Blog

Days of infamy

Q: Lately it seems that newscasters and newspapers are regularly using “infamous” to mean noteworthy or famous. Is this another lost cause?

A: “Infamous” instead of “famous”! What is the world coming to?

No, it’s not a lost cause … yet. Celebrated people, the merely famous, don’t cross the line into infamous until, like Lindsay Lohan and a few others I could mention, their fame gets the better of them.

Famed people are famous, and ill-famed people are infamous (and deserving of infamy).

You’re right, however, that some people are using “infamous” to mean famous. And naturally the issue has been discussed on the Linguist List, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society.

Jonathan E. Lighter, editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, has posted several examples, including these two from 2005:

• The restaurant Simpson’s-in-the-Strand is described in View London, an online guide, as “infamous for being one of London’s most historic restaurants.”

• Victory Records calls the hardcore band Hoods “infamous for their determination and no holds barred work ethic.”

The Yale linguist Laurence R. Horn has also noticed this phenomenon, but he doesn’t think it’s a simple case of “infamous” being used for “famous,” at least not so far. He says the new “infamous” means something like “famous in a pop-cultural domain” or “famous (only) for being famous.”

To test his theory, I did two Internet searches similar to a couple of his. I Googled “infamous Paris Hilton” (693 hits) and “infamous Albert Schweitzer” (0 hits). Hmm.…

Of course, one could argue that someone who writes about Paris Hilton is more likely to be a dim bulb than someone who writes about Albert Schweitzer. Excluding yours truly, naturally!

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