My most hated misusage

I might as well get this one off my chest so the dust can settle.

I do not like – and you can read that as understatement – the use of infamous to mean ‘famous’.

We used to have two words, famous and infamous. If you were famous you were known for all the right reasons, revered in history, showered with accolades, etc., etc.  If you were infamous you were famous but for all the wrong reasons.

Ned Kelly springs to mind, although there would be two points of view about him. One group would think of him as famous (a hero) and the other as infamous (a ruthless villain).

 It gives my head a sharp wrench when I hear someone being described as infamous when surely the context indicates that they are noble and worthy and being praised throughout the land.

 I think that the in- suffix is being read, not as a negative but as an intensive. Being infamous is somehow bigger and better than being famous.

 The origin of the word is in Latin where the in- suffix had, along with the sense of negation, the sense of turning something into a bad version of itself.  The Latin infama means ‘ill repute’, literally, 'bad fame'.

 In English the word infamous was pronounced with the stress on the second syllable until the 1800s. That might have helped us to keep the meaning straight – who knows? 

I can only gnash my teeth about this one because the damage is done. There is no way we can rescue infamous, and I am not sure what we do now in situations where we would, in the good old days, have used the word.  Perhaps we say that someone has acquired a bad reputation. Whatever construction we use, I am sure it would not be as simple and neat as inserting the adjective infamous.

Sue Butler