An infamous use of the word


On my last departure from my parents' country home near Quasqueton, Iowa, I read a sign that had me doing 40 in a 25. 

If I blinked, I would have missed it, along with the small town. But my eyes remained wide open, and they read something more or less: "THANK YOU TO OUR INFAMOUS WAR VETERANS." Cue a big ole American flag and a cardboard cutout of a soldier. 

My poor husband and child had to listen to me for the next 20 minutes --- at which point the radio magically roared to life to shut me up --- about how ridiculous and detrimental the sign-master's error was to his or her message. I spent about five minutes more berating public schools and emoji FML text-speak for causing this error to go unnoticed by most ladies and gents. Because let's face it, people probably read that sign every day and didn't see a word amiss. 

Oh, the shame.

(Full disclosure: Upon seeing this word misused so often, I found myself, at that moment, full of doubt. Am I the one who is wrong? Did I not get the memo on the word's alternative usage? Then thanks to my phone, I validated --- lo and behold --- I was right. Mahahahaha! *HEAD GROWS LARGER, NOT ENOUGH TO NOTICE ... YET*)

Now, I'm not a pedantic person nor a prescriptivist editor, but --- I do believe in proper word usage. Words have meaning for a reason. And while some words' meanings change with popular usage, other words' meanings, such as infamous, are best left alone. 

Let's set the definition straight, then, shall we? 

[in-fuh-muh s]

Having a bad reputation; causing or deserving of a bad reputation.
Synonyms: disreputable, ill-famed, notorious; disgraceful, scandalous, nefarious, odious, wicked, shocking, vile, heinous, villainous.

Well looky there: Infamous does not mean "not famous" or "incredibly famous" or "with fame." Infamous means famous for ill-doing.

Hitler has warranted infamy for decades. Mondays are infamous to most working adults and school-kids (and Garfield cats).

The etymology of infamous dates back to Middle English and combines two Latin roots. Medieval Latin "in-" means "not, opposite of," while Latin "famosus" translates to "celebrated." Therefore, together, infamous becomes "not celebrated." The word appears in usage sometime in the mid 1300s.  

According to Merriam-Webster, many people in the coming centuries since the 1300s misuse this word or lack confidence with using this word >> 

Perhaps you are one of those people who has looked up the word infamous because you can’t seem to quite remember whether it’s supposed to mean “very famous,” “not famous,” “famous (but in a bad way),” or some other thing. If this is the case, you are in excellent company: our records indicate that approximately 88,000 people searched for the word infamous on this site in a recent month.

If you are one of those 88,000 who looks for a synonym rather than using the word infamous, don't fear this word any longer --- remember to simply fear the person, place, or event to who this word refers.

And for all you InFamous video game fans, the creators at Sucker Punch did in fact use the word correctly. In the fictional Empire City, a mysterious explosion rocks the Historic District, and main character Cole MacGrath receives blame for the explosion and the viral epidemic that follows. I.e., he is famous around town for causing harm to the city.