Famous vs. Infamous

By Maeve Maddox

I have long bewailed the misuse of the word famous to apply to bad people, reminding readers that the word for widely known people of ill repute is infamous.

Now I’ve discovered that not only is famous erroneously applied to gangsters and murderers, but now the word infamous is being flung about as if it meant noted or simply, known.

The site that brought this latest misuse to my attention features a slideshow about male celebrities who are shorter than average. Each slide provides information under the following headings:

Height
Date of Birth
Number of Children
Infamous for

One or two of the celebrities are “infamous for” cocaine use, but the information that appears under the “infamous” heading for the others is nothing to be ashamed of. Here are a few examples of the behavior labeled infamous on this site:

was a dishwasher once
was the son of scientists
sometimes hides his hand in his pocket to conceal its trembling
wears thick black horn-rimmed glasses
worked in a beauty salon after high school
was godfather to another celebrity’s children

These acts hardly fit the OED definition of infamous:

Of ill fame or repute; famed or notorious for badness of any kind; notoriously evil, wicked, or vile; held in infamy or public disgrace.

Here, for example, are some infamous people noted for their infamous acts:

Ivan the Terrible
Jack the Ripper
Pol Pot
Heinrich Himmler
Adolf Hitler
Josef Stalin
Delphine LaLaurie
Josef Mengele
Tomas de Torquemada

Actions that warrant the description of infamous include: burning people to death, performing surgical experiments on conscious children, blinding your architects, boiling your treasurer–that kind of thing.

The preoccupation with the celebrity of people–famous or infamous–has coined a new expression: “famous for being famous.”

In the past, the usual way to acquire fame or notoriety was to excel at something, whether writing, acting, or governing. With the advent of self-generated publicity, some people manage to become a focus of public attention for nothing at all. Frequently cited examples of this type of non-fame are: the Kardashian sisters, Paris Hilton, Kato Kaelin, Heidi Montag, Kelly Osbourne, and Ivanka Trump.

Here are some words other than famous or infamous that may be used to describe a well-known person:
well-known
prominent
famed
popular
renowned
noted
eminent
distinguished
esteemed
celebrated
respected
illustrious
acclaimed
great
legendary
lionized
notorious

Most of these words are applicable to people known for doing commendable things. The other kind of people are perhaps best ignored as much as possible.

Related posts:
“Famous Doesn’t Apply to Murderers or Gangsters”

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6 Responses to “Famous vs. Infamous”

  • Bill

    Such an obvious difference, I’m surprised to learn so many get it wrong. I’d think for many “bad” people the slightly milder “notorious” would be a better word. “He’s notorious for smashing hotel furniture after his concerts,” for example.

  • Stephanie

    This is where the Three Amigos got into trouble.

  • venqax

    On the popular US TV show “Shark Tank” they introduce the colorful, but not criminal, billionaire Mark Cuban as the, “notorious owner of the Dallas Mavericks”. When this line is read, the visual is him smiling and shaking hands with someone as he appears to receive an award of some kind. A notorious award? Always made me wonder who writes this stuff.

    For non-Americans, the Dallas Mavs are a professional basketball team.

  • Sanjib

    Thank you for clarifying my doubt between famous and infamous.

  • ApK

    As Maeve says, many people use it to mean “noted” or “known,” so I’m waiting for it to show up that way in the next edition of Websters, as has already happened with the misuse of “literally”, then certain posters will show up here to chastise Maeve for being a ‘purist’.

  • ApK

    As Maeve says, many people use it to mean “noted” or “known,” so I’m waiting for it to show up that way in the next edition of Websters, as has already happened with the misuse of “literally” and “factoid”, then certain posters will show up here to chastise Maeve for being a ‘purist’.

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