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Friday, January 21, 2011

Famous, and not in a good way...

A friend of mine sings in the Elora Festival Singers, a renowned chamber choir in the small town of Elora in Southwestern Ontario. They have just been nominated for a Grammy (congratulations!), said nomination garnering them, according to the local CTV news, "international notoriety".

Notoriety? The words "notorious" and "notoriety" usually imply fame for doing something reprehensible. Are these classically trained (not to say staid!) sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses singing profanity-laden rap songs? (Actually, no, it's choral masterworks by Eric Whitacre with such scurrilous titles as: "Her Sacred Spirit Soars", "Lux aurumque (Light of Gold)", and "I thank you God for this most amazing day".) Did their nomination inspire them to engage in narcotics-fuelled hotel-room trashing, then? Apparently not (or not yet, anyway).

So, before you inadvertently slander by implication some innocent but newly famous person, beware of using "notorious" and "notoriety" as simple synonyms of "famous" and "fame". The Grammy nomination has won for the Elora Festival Singers international acclaim or fame, which they truly deserve. To my knowledge, they don't deserve notoriety.


  1. Hi,

    Most people - even among those interested in words - wouldn't necessarily reach (I assume) for a dictionary, if they believe to have got the meaning of a new word (to them) from the context. "Notorious" might be a very good such example.

    In recent times - it seems to me - fame has also been often converted into money; notoriety seems to be used in a similar way. It seems being "known" is what matters the most, a lot less if it's for good or for bad.

  2. A good reminder - thank you! I think I have heard "notoriety" used often the way the CTV news did. I shall take care not to misuse the word in future.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.