I am not a political supporter of former President George H.W. Bush, which should be obvious to anyone who knows me or reads my writing. But I do wish the former President good health, and a swift recovery from his recent health problems.
That said, an NPR article about his hospitalization misuses the term “notoriety” in the closing graf.
The former president was a naval aviator in World War II — at one point the youngest in the Navy — and was shot down over the Pacific. He achieved notoriety in retirement for skydiving on at least three of his birthdays since leaving the White House in 1992.
Actually, “notoriety” carries a negative connotation. It doesn’t exactly mean “infamy,” but it’s closer to that than it is to “fame.”
This fact is delivered in a response from one commenter that is technically (sort of) correct but is delivered in a vicious, snooty and self-righteous manner:
Even though I didn’t vote for him, I wish him well. I wish even more that journalists with a modicum of education will note that the term “notoriety” means famous for an evil or infamous deed. Skydiving at 80 does not count. Shame on the HR department who hired this benighted troll of a “journalist.”
Shame on the HR department? “Benighted troll”? Fuck you, asshole
Anyway, this issue sets off a comment brawl of epic proportions, which is somewhat perplexing in an article about a former President whose tenure saw us in two foreign wars (Panama and Iraq) and a major recession. The brawl is attended most reasonably by a commenter who says that “notoriety” CAN mean “famous in a positive sense,” but that’s kinda garbage.
Generally speaking, the word “notoriety” has been shifting over the years to become a synonym to “famous,” but that’s because people misunderstand it. They use it to beef up the pompousness of their writing, or spice it up, without knowing its contemporary (post-17th century) usage. Prior to that time, the word’s etymological roots make it appropriate to mean either “fame” or “infamy.”
But the 1600s are a hell of along time ago. Today, “notorious” means, or nearly means, “infamous.” (Since the meanings aren’t exactly aligned, “notorious” is a near-synonym, not a synonym, of “infamous.)
Words often migrate toward having less precise meanings, and usually because news writers don’t understand them. News is the most widely consumed form of text, and the least precisely edited form that has such wide distribution, so it can be blamed for many usage migrations that begin with impreciseness.
This is a pretty typical misusage of the word “notorious,” and in my opinion it’s not a “correct” usage based on the fact that the term is widely misused, but an incorrect usage that happens to be common.
Not knowing the proper usage of a word does not make one correct in misusing it. Nor is it a defense that “I always use it that way.” It is far less of a defense that “everyone uses it that way.” If everyone jumped off a cliff, friend, I would still grab your arm as you moved to follow them.
Overblown language is the enemy of clarity, and the enemy of genuinely powerful writing. It’s easy to do, and when usage errors or near-errors become common, it is even easier to use them and not realize that you’re using overblown language. I would say that using a term one is not entirely familiar with, whether it’s “decimate” or “safeword” or “asshat” or “prestidigitation” or “punk rock” — well, that’s a symptom both of compositional impreciseness and of a genuine desire to write vividly.
Neither one is a war crime.
I would rather have people misuse words than get lectured by stuck-up losers.
The original commenter may be right, but is also an asshole.
It’s my opinion that such “usage-police” commenters and all who pile on with their noses thrust high in the air, nostrils flared, ought to shore up their self-esteem in a way less transparently pathetic. Of course, it’s hard not to keep your nose in the air when you’ve got such a giant stick up your butt.
To me, a former copy-editor, usage police like this represent the most odious form of pompous ass. The discussion of usage correctness vs. incorrectness should not carry with it the intent of humiliating people who misuse words. Doing so carries a class bias that I find far more revolting than the misuse of language.