Q: I was reading a press release from a specialty-food company when I noticed this sentence: “Montebello Kitchens soon gained notoriety as the source for nutritious, delicious, healthful, and flavorful specialty foods.” Is the language shifting or is this use of “notoriety” simply wrong?
A: The noun “notoriety” has meant either fame or infamy since it entered English in the 16th century, but it’s especially used, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “for some reprehensible action, quality, etc.”
Although the published references in the OED suggest that “notoriety” has been used more often than not in the negative sense, the word’s roots are free of infamy.
The dictionary defines the word as “the state or condition of being notorious,” so let’s begin with the adjective “notorious,” which entered English in the late 15th century with “neutral or favourable connotations.”
The adjective is derived from the post-classical Latin notorius (simply meaning well-known) and the classical Latin notus (known).
However, one classical Latin relative did hint at things to come: a notoria was a written statement notifying the authorities of a crime.
It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that “notorious” took a turn toward the dark side—or, as the OED puts it, took on “depreciative or unfavourable connotations.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation for this usage is from the original Book of Common Prayer (1549): “Suche persones as were notorious synners.”
Getting back to “notoriety,” can the word be used today to mean fame as well as infamy?
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines it as the “quality or condition of being notorious; ill fame.” The adjective “notorious,” meanwhile, is defined as “known widely and usually unfavorably; infamous.”
(Speaking of “infamous,” we’ve written a blog entry about its use to mean merely “famous.”)
Although one could make an etymological case for using “notoriety” in a positive way, the word carries a lot of negative baggage. That’s why you were puzzled by the Montebello Kitchens press release.
Would we use it positively? Perhaps, but only in rare situations.
For example, we might use it to make a hyperbolic point: “Groucho achieved notoriety as a punster.”
Or we might use it to make a play on words: “In Hitchcock’s Notorious, a close-up of the key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand gained a certain notoriety.”
Check out our books about the English language