Printable Version
Pronunciation: in-fê-mês Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Well-known for some evil, abominable action, impact or activity. 2. Wicked, very bad, evil, abominable.

Notes: Most adjective pairs with a member beginning on the prefix in- are the negation of their counterpart without the in: decisive : indecisive, secure : insecure. But this word does not mean "not famous"; its sense has drifted away from that to something like "ill-". Unfamous fills in the semantic vacuum. Inhuman is similar.

In Play: This adjective is certainly related to famous for it may imply "well-known": "Phil Anders is infamous for his misogynistic womanizing." It may be used in reference to anything bad that is well-known, though: "They met in the infamous London fog, but when it dissipated, they parted company."

Word History: Infamous is ostensibly composed of in- "not" + famous. However, it is actually the adjective from infamy, just as famous is the adjective from fame. It was borrowed from Latin infamatus "of ill repute" and its underlying noun infamia "ill-repute", which had already made the semantic shift. English simply borrowed both words from Latin. Fame is what's left of Latin fama "rumor, talk, saying" in English. It was passed down to Latin from PIE bha- "to speak, tell, say". Traces of this word also show up in Greek pheme "speech, utterance" and phone "voice, sound" both from phanai "to speak". Sanskrit bhanati "speaks" and Latin fari "to speak", that underlies fabula "tale, story" and infan(t)s "nontalking, nontalker" share the same source, as does Russian basnya "fable". (Let's now give a bow to Debbie Moggio, who saw this inconsistency in the prefix on today's Good Word and thought it might interest us all.)

Dr. Goodword,

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