The Language Perfectionist: A Misuse That Can Land You in Big Trouble

I can almost guarantee that you’ve read or heard this mistake:

  • Website headline: Design a Fallout 3 perk [a bonus for video gamers], win notoriety and gaming gear
  • Mr. Westen… has gained notoriety and respect in the Democratic Party with his book…. It was helpful to hear his ideas.

As in the above examples, the word notoriety is sometimes used as if it means fame. In fact, it means fame for the wrong reasons, such as criminality or other bad behavior. Similarly, the adjective notorious is pejorative, referring to an unfavorable reputation. Synonyms are infamy and infamous.

Interestingly, those who misuse the word were once right – about 500 years ago. The Latin root simply means well known. Even today, some dictionaries claim that the word means “good” fame or wide recognition.

Don’t believe them. The meaning has changed, and it makes no sense to insist that it hasn’t. What’s more, it’s always wise to avoid ambiguity.

But even better reasons exist for respecting this distinction. Calling someone notorious – when you mean famous – could lead to serious problems. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer wrote his staff a memo warning about the possible legal consequences of this misuse on the air.

I agree with Paul Brians, an English professor who maintains a website devoted to language use and abuse: “Nothing admirable should be called ‘notorious.'”

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was a direct-response copywriter. He is author of the wordplay books Cruel and Unusual Puns and Acronymania, and is now writing a new book that also blends language and humor.]
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  • Sleahcim

    Great. Good info. However, you failed to mention any alternative. I think if you are going to speak to the misuse of a word you should at least guide readers (writers) to others that might be used instead. How about acclaim, celebrity, distinction, honor, prominence, reputation, repute, esteem, etc. Depending on the context, one or many others could be used instead.

  • Bill Adams

    They’re not just misusing “notorious,” this way. More and more often, I see “infamous” used when “famous” is clearly meant. The jokey use of “infamous” to introduce bad-boy celebs like Charlie Sheen has led to the widespread impression that the “in” serves to intensify somehow, as in “invaluable.” (Literally, “priceless,” which does happen to mean “of highest value.”) People seem to feel that prefixes make their speech more important-sounding, as in the hugely popular substitution of “epicenter” for every possible use of “center” or “focus” (riight down to “we’re breaking ground on a new medical epicenter.”) But these uses should live in infamy.