Friday, June 12, 2015

Famous or Infamous?

Famous and infamous are neither synonyms nor antonyms. They mean different, though similar things, both related to fame. The simplest and best way to look at it is in terms of favorability. When you are famous, you are widely known. When you are infamous, you are widely known for negative reasons.

You can be famous for something negative, but you can’t really be infamous for something positive. For example, it could be said that Richard Jewell is famous for having been suspected of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombings, but it could not be said that he was infamous for having been exonerated.

Of all of FDR’s many loquacious utterances, perhaps the most widely known, or famous if you will, is his address to Congress after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in which he sought a declaration of war: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

And he was right about infamy. The same resonance that currently comes along with the date 9/11 was present in the 1940s with December 7. Infamy is the noun form of infamous, much like fame is the noun form of famous.

Many seeking fame find infamy instead, and given that America and Americans’ obsession with celebrity shows no signs of abatement, you should ready yourself for plenty of both words by having a clear understanding of their meaning and common usage.