FAMOUS, Not Infamous

I’m old enough to be aware of Will Rogers,* so when a youthful guest on a morning TV show cheerily referred to “the infamous Will Rogers” I almost gagged on my granola. Glorying in his authentic Oklahoma cowboy roots, Rogers gained fame far and wide as an entertainer and down-to-earth espouser of humor and wisdom. In other words, he was famous.

Although famous and infamous share six letters, the prefix in- tacked onto the latter word means “not” (only one of this prefix’s uses). Not only that, but infamous is synonymous with notorious. Ask Merriam-Webster:

famous (adj.) known or recognized by many people; having fame

infamous (adj.) well-known for being bad; known for evil acts or crimes

I doubt the pejorative infamous is confused with its more positive parent due to another meaning of -in: do; start, as in inflame. More likely, three-quarters of the word (f-a-m-o-u-s) play hijacker and suggest the two adjectives are one and the same.

*Will Rogers first made his mark as a wryly humorous vaudeville cowboy, and his fame spread as he went on to star in the Ziegfield Follies, make 71 movies (mostly silents), and write a nationally syndicated newspaper column. Fifty-six years after Rogers’ death, Broadway gave him his due with a musical: The Will Rogers Follies, which opened in 1991 and ran for almost 1,000 performances before touring nationwide. The original production won the Tony for Best Musical, and the Best Actor award went to Keith Carradine, who played the title role.

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