Vocabulary

An infamous use of the word

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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? 

Infamous
[in-fuh-muh s]
adjective

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.  

How do you peruse?

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When I was a copy editor at an advertising agency, reviewing professional writers' work, I experienced a-many of moments of doubt. 

I must be wrong because this writer who is decades older than me surely didn't mess up, right? I can't be the only one to know about this rule, yet here is the twelfth error I see today. Is this a real grammar rule or is it my preference? 

I Googled my little heart out in constant search of validation for my edits (which in turn made me a better editor and a better writer).

This process of jumping over a rainbow of language research led me to learn I was wrong (and right) about a word's definition I had thought I understood for years. 

I had out my purple pen (me and my head editor were anit-red pen gals), and I was reading through some press release, some article, some advertisement. 

"Peruse the operation manual..." 

That cannot be right, I thought, coming upon this usage.

**EXAMPLE HAS BEEN CRAFTED IN LALA LAND. NO OPERATIONAL MANUAL WOULD USE THE WORD "PERUSE," I DON'T THINK. BUT THIS HELPS GET THE POINT ACROSS.**

I grew up thinking peruse meant "to read in a casual or leisurely way." Operational manuals will most likely be perused, but they shouldn't be. 

I perused my text books. I perused that New Yorker article. I perused the baby books that told me how to care for my foal. 

Well stamp my hoof if it wasn't opposite day up in the dictionary. 

I dug into my Merriam-Webster and read: 

Peruse
\perooz\ verb
1. To examine or consider with attention and in detail. To study. 

I could handle being wrong. I could deal with feeling a small bit of embarrassment, wondering how often I had used the word peruse incorrectly and who had thought of me as a word-lover-wannabe. I have learned my greatest lessons from being wrong. I would not forget this new definition, no Merlin. 

I continued reading the alternative definitions. Cue a mouth drop when I came upon entry No. 2: "To look over or through in a casual or cursory manner." 

There had to be an error. 

I chucked my physical dictionary to the ground and took to the magical internet. The internet corroborated what the book said (my how backwards that seems). 

Peruse had two different and opposite meanings. 

Whoa. 

I thought surely peruse must be a word in a category of its own. My friends, there are others. There are simple words we use every day to express opposite meanings that we don't even  think about (I'm speaking for myself; perhaps you are some deep word investigator who is chuckling at my language innocence). 

Editrix Grammar Girl spoke (and wrote) about Janus words. Check out her post if you want to see how some words can be both black and white. 

And with that, I wish you a very happy Wednesday. May you have enjoyed perusing this blog post, whatever that means to you.