Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Infamy of Redefining "Infamous" - An Editorial

This posting has little to do with television, only slightly more to do with radio and everything to do with vocabulary.

For the past two days, I've been arguing with a baseball journalist about the meaning of "infamous." Apparently its definition has changed over the years. Once upon a time, "infamous" referred to something or somebody that smacked of infamy... and "infamy" was something of an evil, vile or criminal reputation.

We've all probably heard or read President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's address to Congress on December 8, 1941, when he declared a state of war between the United States and the Empire of Japan due to the latter's sneak attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The address began with these immortal words: "Yesterday, December seventh, nineteen forty-one: a date which will live in infamy." It was covered by all the radio networks as well as newsreels.

Most of us have heard this at least once in our lives; one can barely escape it when the History Channel decides to focus yet again on World War II. And, by the then-standard definition, what Roosevelt was saying was that the events of December 7th would take their place among the most evil and treacherous deeds known to history.

The events of December 7th were infamous. So were the events of September 11, 2001. Going backward in time, so were the sinking of the Lusitania, the mistreatment of Union soldiers at Andersonville, and the Spanish Inquisition (Monty Python notwithstanding).

A cheesy and inappropriate swimming pool situated in a major league ballpark is not "infamous," at least not by the original meaning of the word. But, as I said earlier, apparently the definition has changed. Today, "infamous" can be defined as something or someone that is famous for negative reasons. Dictionary.com ("an Ask.com service") uses this more modern definition, as does Wiktionary. Merriam-Webster’s is closer to the original meaning, although it, too, can be construed in the new way.

Language can evolve over time, no question. And I suspect "infamous" has evolved due to the exposure of President Roosevelt's address: without knowing its true meaning, people have heard the phrase "date which will live in infamy" and assume FDR is saying that December 7th will be remembered - or "infamous" - forever. There's a reason "fame" is embedded in "infamy" and "infamous," but it's due entirely to the unspeakably evil nature of the deed or person that it is describing. By lowering that standard to merely something that was a bad idea - in which case New Coke could be "infamous" - the power of the phrase "date which will live in infamy" has been diluted. Roosevelt's address has been defanged for modern audiences.

I confess that I'm guilty of misusing the word that way; in My Name's Friday, I referred to Jack Webb's 1958 LP "You're My Girl" - in which he recites the lyrics of several romantic ballads in that wonderful Sgt. Friday style - as "infamous." There was nothing inherently evil about Webb's album, although I'd wager a few die-hard Sinatra fans would debate the point. "Notorious" would have been a better choice.

I know better now, which is why I climb onto the soapbox and argue with fellow authors, sportswriters, and anybody else about this unfortunate - but not infamous - use of the word.

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