Grammar 101: Famous and Infamous

While you may have no problem differentiating between bizarre and bazaar, many people seem to misunderstand the difference between famous and infamous. Some people think that these two words can be used interchangeably, but that is far from the case and you can easily offend someone by choosing the wrong word.

Do you know when to say someone is famous and when to say someone is infamous? Do you know why you may strive to achieve great fame rather than to live on in infamy? These are two very different concepts.

Famous: Well-Known in a Good Way

Saying that someone (or something, for that matter) is famous is to say that this person (or thing) is widely known and celebrated. The person is generally held in high regard and thought about in a positive manner. For example, you could say that President Barack Obama is famous. He may have some opponents, but we would generally hold him in a positive light.

Using “fame” or “famous” to refer to most celebrities would also be appropriate, regardless of their relative level of skill or talent. Lindsay Lohan is arguably just as famous as Tom Hanks, and it would largely be inappropriate to refer to either individual as infamous.

Infamous: Say Hello to the Bad Guy

Both famous people and infamous people are well-known, but they are widely known for very different reasons. While a famous person is generally viewed in a positive manner, an infamous person is known for bad things. Usually viewed unfavorably, infamous people can include notorious gangsters, serial murderers, or genocidal politicians. I think most of us would agree that Adolf Hitler will live on infamy.

Unless the person is best known for a notoriously evil act of some kind, it probably would not be a great idea to refer to a Hollywood celebrity as infamous. The exception could perhaps be someone like Roman Polanski, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

A Political Statement in a Single Word

By choosing to use “famous” or “infamous” to refer to a political figure of some kind, you are immediately making a statement about this person. If you say that Chairman Mao Tse-Tung is famous, then you may be thinking about how he completely changed the face of China, giving it an opportunity for prosperity.

However, if you say that Mao is infamous, then thoughts of Communist restriction and propaganda may feature more prominently in your mind. One word makes a world of difference. Choose wisely.