It’s “famous.” Not “infamous.” Unless you really mean it.

There are two old, occasional misuses that I’ve suddenly noticed cropping up a lot more recently. I’m not sure that it’s a trend — probably just coincidence — but since they’re on my mind I’ll do a couple quick posts about them.

The two misuses are using infamous for famous and using “thanks to” in a negative sense. I’ll cover one today and the other next week.

To show the first problem, take a look at this sample sentence:

They were joined by players from the infamous Harlem Globetrotters.

This use is wrong. Do you, as the writer, intend to highlight the Globetrotters as an infamous team, known for their misdeeds and foul acts? For their negative reputation? No, you don’t. This should be “famous Harlem Globetrotters,” or the phrase should use some other adjective: well-known, renowned, celebrated, etc. (To be fair, this particular use — “infamous Globetrotters” — is out there a lot. I have to suspect that either someone in the Globetrotters press office makes this error deliberately, or unthinking reporters and copyeditors have latched onto the construction and keep repeating it.)

While infamous is sometimes used sarcastically or for humorous effect, it is not a synonym for famous, and shouldn’t be used that way. It is the adjective form of infamy; both words refer to an evil or scandalous history; a shameful or disgraceful reputation; notoriety. (Notorious is another word that’s often misused for famous; it, too, should only be used to indicate a negative kind of fame.)

Some word processor thesauruses suggest that infamous can be used as a simple substitute for famous. If your word processor recommends this, it is wrong. If you use it this way, you will be showing your ignorance.

This one hadn’t made it into GMAU as of the last print edition, but because of the increase in use I’ll be surprised if it isn’t in the next. It will probably debut with a language change index of stage 1 (‘used by a small minority, but rejected by most users’).

While I haven’t given many concrete examples in this post, this misuse of infamous is, sadly, fairly common. Thirty seconds in any search engine will show that. Even more sadly, I’ve come across discussions on the Internet in which people suggest (or even assert) that the words are interchangeable. So far none of these have come from people who actually know what they’re talking about, which is a good sign.

Coming up next…“thanks to” used incorrectly.

= = = = =

Posting Note: I’ll be offline this week. This post is going up on an automatic schedule, as is the one that will follow it. Please do leave comments, if you have any, but don’t expect a swift response. Thanks!


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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5 Responses to It’s “famous.” Not “infamous.” Unless you really mean it.

  1. Pingback: Thanks to writing clearly, we’ll positively understand you. | thebettereditor

  2. I have to disagree with the strict polar opposites cited above for famous/infamous. They were defined at a time when nobody did anything difficult for fun. The new ironic usage of infamous implies a good deal without having to spell it out. To say “we climbed the famous Mt Everest” just sounds odd, but by saying “we climbed the infamous Mt Everest” short-cuts us to the point: a difficult achievement overcoming all the odds – all in two additional letters. This is in contrast to saying “we visited the famous Niagra Falls”. (We hopped on a bus, no effort required), and sounds just fine. Likewise, If I’d written a widely used text book on advanced maths, it would be boastful to say “my famous maths book”, but I can be self depreciating by talking about “my infamous math book”

    • Hi, Andrew – thanks for the comment.
      I agree with almost everything you’ve said here: the Niagara example, the math text example, the idea of irony/sarcasm/self-deprecation.
      I would only argue for one sort-of exception, which is your Mount Everest example.
      On the surface, what you wrote looks fine, specifically that “infamous Mount Everest” seems a useful shortcut. Because it could be, and I like your point.
      But looking deeper, I think that use — like most other similar uses — still has a problem. Which is that while “famous” might sound odd (I agree), “infamous” becomes ambiguous (diving right into ‘skunked word’ territory, in my opinion). Why is Everest “infamous” in this context? Because it’s evil? Because it’s dangerous? Because many have tried, and most have failed? Or (and here’s the problem), is the user of “infamous Mount Everest” not truly aware of the traditional meaning of “infamous,” or, in fact, not being clear about what they mean? Were they ignorant to use that term, or at least imprecise?
      I’d lean heavily toward avoiding “infamous” by itself here (although I recognize that you might get it to work, in the right sentence and context). My instinct instead would be to either find a better modifier (something that doesn’t sound as odd as “famous” such as “dreaded” or “fearsome”) or else do something that I very rarely recommend: use more words. For example, just a few to clarify your intent: “we climbed Mount Everest, infamous for unpredictable weather” or “, infamous for breaking the best climbers” or even a single word, such as simply “the infamously dangerous Mount Everest.” I don’t think anyone can read irony or sarcasm into that after this kind of minor change.

  3. Hi Chris, your post among the post popped up on the search engine when I did the search. “Is infamous positive or negative?” was the query. Your explanation is good. Nevertheless, I just jumped from an article on BBC that literally used ‘infamous’ word opposite with your thought. Confused and should I say they trend is now ‘famous’?

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