“Famous” Doesn’t Apply to Murderers or Gangsters

By Maeve Maddox

The latest Mall Murderer left a note expressing the idea that “now” (i.e., after killing several inoffensive strangers at the local mall), he would be “famous.”

It is to be hoped that writers won’t make the mistake of applying that particular adjective to doers of evil deeds.

The adjective famous has the meaning “honored for achievement.”

To describe those who do evil attention-getting things, we have the words infamous and notorious.

The word infamous expresses the idea that the person or incident described is one of a vicious, contemptible, or criminal nature.

The word notorious once meant simply “widely-known,” but for many centuries has been used as a word of condemnation. For example, Albert Schweitzer was a famous medical missionary to Africa, but Al Capone was a notorious gangster.

Each of these adjectives has a corresponding abstract noun:
famous / fame
infamous / infamy
notorious / notoriety

On this very day in 1941, President Roosevelt remarked that the date December 7, 1941 would “live in infamy.”

YouTube video: Famous, Infamous, and Notorious

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12 Responses to ““Famous” Doesn’t Apply to Murderers or Gangsters”

  • Joe Donaldson

    Some people go into sports or acting or politics or start a business in the hopes of becoming famous. This kid woke up and thought, “I’ll just shoot up the mall.”

    What a [loser].

  • FinanceAndFat

    I’m glad you posted this! I’ve had many conversations with people who don’t understand famous/infamous. It’s so simple!

  • Mary

    I’m glad you posted this, too. That stuck out to me as well when I heard the news report. My husband also picked right up on it. Both of us instantly thought, famous? No, pal. Infamous, maybe. Personally, I’m trying my hardest not to give him the satisfaction, and working to dismiss the entire thing from my mind.

    I wish these nuts would get a reality check and realize that breaking up with a girlfriend at 19 and losing a job at McDonald’s is no life-ending event – and certainly never an excuse to harm innocent people! (not that there is one)

  • Connie

    Thank you for this post, that is excellent advice. I can’t believe the whole thing, it’s just horrible. The last thing we want to do is encourage that sort of thinking by giving it a positive connotation.

  • temp-

    wow, good tip

    but now im not sure about how it is in my first language (spanish)

    famoso / fama
    infame / infamia
    notorio / notoriedad

    in our case infame isnt too used so i thing people still use famoso (famous) to infamous poeple, infame isnt popular either so i thing famoso is correct at least in my particular language

  • Ann

    so you suggest not to use on this way
    “He was a famous gangster.”

  • Maeve

    Ann,
    Definitely not. Bad guys get “infamous” or “notorious”. To say “famous” is to imply approval.

  • Jodie

    Another excellent tip!

    So what exactly happened on the 7th of December?

  • Maeve

    The Japanese air force bombed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) and the U.S. finally entered the war (WWII).

  • alvin

    pls inform me who originally defines “famous”, british or americans?. there lies its true meaning. he he he.

  • Maeve

    Alvin,
    Neither. “Famous” is from Latin “fama.”

    And its “original” meaning isn’t really relevant. Conventional educated English usage on both sides of the Pond recognizes “famous” as having a positive connotation as opposed to “infamous.”

  • Alan Sears

    Famous & Infamous misuse.

    Is it that it is now so easy to write publicly that so much more lack of knowledge of English is exposed?
    Is it that education standards slipped badly at some point so that we have a higher percentage of such errors?
    Is it that so many people do not have their work proofread?
    Is it that more people are simply careless and will not use dictionaries?

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