A good word going bad?
Is "notorious" about to flip? That was the question that went through my mind the other day as I looked over an article that referred to someone as being a "notoriously light eater."
Hmm, is this the right word? Notoriety means "the state of being known for some unfavorable act or quality," doesn't it? Unless we're talking about eating disorders – and in this case, trust me, we're not – I'm not sure that being a light eater is exactly an "unfavorable" situation.
On the other hand, the light eater in question was the host of a TV food show, so maybe this was meant semiseriously: After all, who wants restaurant recommendations from someone who doesn't like to eat? So in a little bit of editorial diplomacy, I suggested we say that the man in question is "well known as a light eater" and leave it at that.
This little encounter did make me wonder whether the distinction between fame – being known for something good – and notoriety is being lost.
Or in other words, has the "wrong" usage overtaken the "right" one to the point that the meaning has "flipped," and we can now simply say that "notorious" means "famous," period?
In our celebrity-obsessed pop culture, it may be that there truly is no such thing as bad publicity, and so the distinction is meaningless.
For a careful writer or editor trying to connect with a mass audience, the language is full of ambiguous usages that need to be avoided or so carefully packaged with contextual clues that the chance of misunderstanding is held to a minimum.
For instance, "table," as a verb, is a common term in legislative and similar official circles: One tables a motion or a new report. It originally meant to present something for discussion, but in American usage, that "tabling" is a stalling technique; it often means to postpone indefinitely. Any publication trying to reach an international audience should try to avoid it.
Similarly, some style guides advise against using "biweekly" in favor of "every two weeks" (or twice a week instead of "semiweekly"). The new hire who hears from the human resources office that he's to be paid "biweekly" and thinks that means a check on both Wednesday and Friday afternoons is headed for trouble.
As for "notorious," a little quick Googling suggests that the two most salient appearances of the word on the pop-cultural horizon are as the title of a 1946 Alfred Hitchcock movie and as the name of a hip-hop superstar mysteriously murdered in Los Angeles in 1997, Notorious B.I.G.
The latter, in particular, suggests that the idea that "notoriety" equals "bad fame" is pretty well fixed, but I may be bringing a lot of middle-class hang-ups to the discussion. The late Notorious B.I.G. lives on in his music.
And as for the Hitchcock flick: It's about how government agents try to get Ingrid Bergman, who has taken to drink after her father's conviction for treason against the United States, to spy on her dad's Nazi friends in South America. It's a classic favorite, and it may have left whole generations thinking that if Bergman was "notorious," it wasn't a bad thing to be, especially if Cary Grant was involved.
A quick look at "notoriety" on Onelook.com suggests that the "bad fame" sense is the accepted usage. And it has been that way since the 17th century. But the original meaning of "notorious" was not negative. It simply meant "well known."
Sometimes two forks of a river flow together again downstream. Sometimes a distinction in meaning – often somewhat arbitrary anyway – gets lost and nobody misses it.
We aren't there yet with "notorious." But we may get there.
• This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.