Infamous doesn’t mean “extremely famous.” But it doesn’t mean “not famous,” either. Someone who is infamous is still quite famous — but unlike your favorite celebrity or social media influencer, you wouldn’t be excited to run into them on the street.
Famous comes from the Latin famosus, meaning “celebrated.” It’s derived from fama, Latin for “reputation,” and has a positive connotation when you use it to describe a noun that is very well known. People can be famous, but so can places or things. The Eiffel Tower is a famous landmark in Paris, for example, and Oscar Mayer is a famous brand of lunch meat. And who doesn’t like the Eiffel Tower or bologna?
Open any celebrity magazine and you’ll find examples of the word famous everywhere. But famous things don’t have to be known by everyone. For example:
- Have you tried my grandfather’s famous chili recipe?
- Herb gave up his life with the rich and famous to pursue his dream of professional beekeeping.
- At our school, Mrs. Turner is famous for giving very little homework.
Even if you don’t subscribe to celebrity magazines or click on every celebrity gossip link, you probably know these famous, celebrated people in history:
- Abraham Lincoln, president who emancipated American slaves
- Helen Keller, activist and advocate for people with disabilities
- Harriet Tubman, abolitionist who led escaped slaves to freedom
- Mahatma Gandhi, civil rights leader who influenced the end of British rule in India
- Oprah Winfrey, journalist and media mogul who empowers women and the Black community
The difference between famous vs. infamous lies in one little prefix: in-, meaning “not.” But it doesn’t mean that an infamous person is “not famous” — it means they’re “not celebrated.” Infamous is the adjective form of the word infamy, both of which come from the Latin infamis (meaning “of ill fame”). It used to be a legal term that meant one lost rights as a citizen due to being convicted of a crime, but today, it means “generally accepted to be a bad person.” Any confusion is understandable; even the Three Amigos got it wrong:
Due to its negative connotation, you’re most likely to use infamous to describe a person or world event (or maybe a very bad dog). For example:
- Our family is infamous at restaurants for skipping out on our bill.
- Death row houses the most infamous felons in the entire prison.
- The infamous ruler never took mercy on his enemies.
Unfortunately, history is full of infamous figures, particularly world leaders who oversaw murders, torture and genocide. You probably know these names (but wish you didn’t):
- Adolf Hitler, German dictator who oversaw the Holocaust
- Joseph Stalin, Soviet dictator who oversaw 20 million deaths
- Pol Pot, Cambodian Prime Minister who oversaw the Cambodian Genocide
- Lee Harvey Oswald, assassinated President John F. Kennedy
- Genghis Khan, Mongolian emperor whose army killed over 20 million people while trying to overtake China
Once you’ve mastered the in- in infamous, it’s easy to tell the difference between these words. But there are more confusing words to maneuver, including: