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.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.