The Notorious ‘Notorious’

Speak of the devil.

No sooner had I written about The New York Times’s unfortunate decision to cut back on copy editors than the sort of error appeared on the Times’s mobile feed that a good copy editor could have caught in his or her sleep. It’s in the slightly grayed-out subhead below:

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 2.11.38 PM

The error, as all good sticklers have already noted, is the use of the word notoriety to mean “fame,” when in actuality, notoriety is fame for doing one very bad thing or repeatedly doing moderately bad things. Bernie Madoff is a notorious grifter, Bill Buckner notoriously let a ball go through his legs, Donald Trump is a notorious teller of untruths. On the other hand, Martin Landau’s run in Mission Impossible was successful by every measure.

Notorious=famous is not an uncommon mistake, and grammar and usage sites all over the internet are filled with cautionary warnings against it, such as this one: “You cannot apply notorious or notoriety to anyone or anything of good repute.” On Twitter, I asked Bryan Garner, the doyen of American style, about the usage, and he replied that it is “widely rejected by speakers of English — especially by the notorious @byagoda.”

I’ve always thought of notorious as belonging to a small but interesting category of misused words: ones that have been adopted to mean their opposite, or near opposite. Others are nonplussed (now often used to mean unfazed, or calm) and hoi polloi, which I have seen used to indicate fancy people, presumably because it sounds like “hoity toity.” (More common are words that change 70 or 80 rather than 180 degrees: disinterested to mean “uninterested,” fortuitous to mean “fortunate,” penultimate to mean “ultimate,” presently to mean “now.” I once wrote an only half-humorous guide to how long one should cling to the original meanings of these terms.)

I tweeted a snarky comment about the Times’s misuse of notoriety, and someone at the Gray Lady must have taken note of my or someone else’s quibble, because by evening the teaser for the Landau obituary had changed:

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 2.58.05 PM

In putting together this post, I naturally consulted the online Oxford English Dictionary and discovered to my surprise that the original meaning of notorious, dating to no later than 1495, is, “Of a fact: well known; commonly or generally known; forming a matter of common knowledge.” The word was applied to people — in a neutral or positive context — as early as 1588, the date of this citation: “Manie of you … are men verie notorious for their learning and preaching.”

Merriam-Webster online points out that there’s no hint of negativity in the word’s etymology:

“Notorious” was adopted into English in the 16th century from Medieval Latin “notorius,” itself from Late Latin’s noun “notorium,” meaning “information” or “indictment.” “Notorium,” in turn, derives from the Latin verb “noscere,” meaning “to come to know.”

According to the OED, the negative connotation had come on the scene by the late 16th century; in Ben Jonson’s 1616 play Epicoene, a character calls another a “notorious stinkardly beareward.” It quickly caught on, maybe because the presence in it of the word no makes it sound bad. In The Racehorse in Training (1880), William Day referred to “The celebrated, or as some may be inclined to call her, the notorious, Lady Elizabeth.”

But the positive/neutral connotation persisted through the centuries. Some examples:

  • 1778: “Not a better pipe at the playhouse; He has long been notorious for that.”
  • 1865: “Where was the person to be found, notorious and accessible, who could say [etc.].”
  • 1955: “He is … notorious through all the docks of Erie, from Albany to Buffalo, for his probity and his sportsmanship.”

To be sure, the current general preference is for negative notorious. But on historical grounds alone, The New York Times could have stuck to its guns regarding Martin Landau.

However, if the Times or anyone else ever uses infamous to mean “famous,” I’m coming out swinging.




Return to Top