Famous/Infamous/Notorious

We all know that famous means well-known.

The goof comes when we use notorious as a synonym for famous, or notoriety as a synonym for fame.

Infamous and notorious mean famous FOR A BAD REASON. If someone achieves notoriety, it’s for doing something you would probably be ashamed of or embarrassed about. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 has been called a day “which will live in infamy” (italics mine). That’s an excellent and appropriate use of the word.

So unless you’re a complete contrarian or something of a sociopath, you shouldn’t want to be infamous or notorious. That simply means you’re well-known for doing something wrong or dumb. We also shouldn’t be calling someone notorious just because they’ve become famous for something. That’s incorrect and an insult.

One can be both famous and infamous, of course (e.g., people with the last name of Kardashian). Personally, I don’t want to be famous, but if it happened for something good, then that would be OK. But I would never want to be infamous or notorious.

If you do want to be infamous or notorious, talk to a counselor. Seriously.

Alumni/alumnus

Living in a college town and teaching at another local university, I hear this one a lot.

The common mistake is saying something like, “I am or she is an alumni of such-and-such college.” That’s impossible. Alumni is the PLURAL form of alumnus.

If you graduated from a college, you are an alumnus of that college. If a bunch of graduates are getting together, then the alumni of that school are gathering.

In other words, “I,” “he,” or “she” means “-us.” : )

(Or you can avoid the whole issue, and just say “alum” for short!)

(And yes, I know that TECHNICALLY, a female grad is an alumna, and the plural of that is alumnae. But I’m being radical and non-sexist, and my guess is that the female terms are on their way out to make way for a gender-neutral set of terms. Yes, I’m making a stand here….)

Note: No one wants a grammar lesson on Boxing Day, so the next post will be on January 2! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!