It’s December 7th, a day that Franklin D. Roosevelt said would “live in infamy” because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.* That word “infamy” got me thinking about the various words we have for different kinds of fame.

A long time ago I heard a story about a colorful old ball player named Pepper Rodgers. He was most well-known as a football player and coach, but this story comes from when he played high-school baseball. When he came up to bat, the catcher for the other team said, “If it aint the great Pepper Rodgers…folks say you got a big mouth. Folks say you’re kind of a showboat.”

“Is that right?” said Pepper Rodgers. “Do you know what folks say about you?”

“No,” said the catcher. “What do they say?”


Pepper’s point was that he would rather be infamous than un-famous. The philosophy is debatable, but the word infamy has an interesting history. The in– prefix, as you know, often signifies negation, like the prefix un-. But an infamous person isn’t un-famous. He’s just famous for bad reasons. So how did we end up with such a word?

Fame is a morally neutral term in English. It just means that people know your name and talk about you; it doesn’t comment on whether they know your name for good reasons or bad reasons. Mother Teresa, Jack the Ripper, and Kim Kardashian are all famous. In Latin, however, fama, the root of fame, is a morally positive term—something more like honor or good reputation. (***I’m oversimplifying. If you want a more complicated version, I have provided one at the bottom of this letter.) Infamia, then, is the opposite of honor—essentially, dishonor—not the opposite of being well-known.  

Notorious and notoriety, like infamous and infamy, refer specifically to ill fame. I sometimes see people using notoriety as a synonym for fame—as in, “Julia Child achieved notoriety as America’s favorite television chef.” I had a great aunt, however, who did achieve notoriety with her cooking, at least within the family. At family gatherings, everyone kept an eye out to see which dish she brought so that they could avoid it.

If the words notorious and notoriety remind you of noted and noteworthy, that’s because they all come from the same Latin root notus, or “known.” For reasons that I don’t know, notorious and notoriety took on negative connotations (a linguistic process called pejoration) while noted and noteworthy took on positive connotations (a process called amelioration). 

Renown is another fame-related word that sometimes gives people trouble. It’s tempting to stick a ‘k’ in there (“reknown”), or even to pronounce it as “re-known.” It’s an understandable mistake, since people of renown are also well-known. But, surprisingly, the renown and known aren’t related etymologically. The second syllable of renown is pronounced like noun. That’s because it’s essentially the same word. Noun derives from the Latin nomen, meaning “name.” (Think of nom, the French word for name.) A noun is simply the name of a person, place, or thing. Since the prefix re– means “again” a renowned person is a person whose name gets spoken again and again.

Continuing up the scale from negative fame to positive fame, we come to illustrious. This is a fun word. It literally means “lit up.” That lustr– in the middle is the same word as luster (or lustre to you Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, Celts, and Brits). Not surprisingly, illustrious is related to illustration, which is related to illumination. You’ve seen illuminated manuscripts—that is, manuscripts that have been decorated by monks. They look like they’ve been lit up with gold leaf and other gorgeous materials. Etymologically, illumination and illustration are nearly the same word. Just as an illustration lights up a text, an illustrious person is lit up with fame, respect, accomplishment, etc.

I’m going to wrap up this tour of fame-related terms with the word eminent. You’ve probably heard some version of the pun about the farmer, a man out standing in his field. That’s pretty literally what eminent means: outstanding in one’s field. It comes from the Latin ex (“out of”) + minere (which, according to, is related to mons, or “hill”). If you think how a hill rises up from the ground around it, that’s what an eminent person does. The word prominent works almost exactly the same way. Actually, the words prominence and eminence are sometimes used to refer to hills, especially in military history books.

If you confuse word eminent with the words imminent and immanent, it’s understandable. Imminent means “looming” or “overhanging.” Going back to the hill-related root minere from the above paragraph, think how a cliff overhangs or looms over you when you stand at the bottom. If you’re facing imminent doom, doom is looming over you like that. To the right you will see a picture of a man who is facing imminent doom.

Finally there is the word immanent, which means “indwelling” or “inherent.” In the Latin, it’s in- + manere (to dwell). You find the same root in remain and permanent (also in mansion and manor, two kinds of dwellings).

You see immanent most often in theological contexts, as a contrast to transcendent. One of the great mysteries of God is that he utterly transcends the created order, and yet he is also immanent—dwelling with and among us. The immanence of God is especially relevant here in the run-up to Christmas, when we celebrate the fact that God’s took on flesh and dwelt among us.

I was gearing up to write about the fact that the name Immanuel means “God with us,” and that you can easily see that it has the same root as immanent. Only it doesn’t have the same root. Immanuel is straight-up Hebrew (that –el at the end is the word for God, as in Elohim, El-Shaddai, El Elyon, etc.). Its close similarity to the Latinate immanent, which also speaks of God’s presence with us, would appear to be a happy linguistic accident.

*Bonus Pearl Harbor Anecdote. My daughter Margaret went to Normandy, France as an exchange student and stayed with a family whose father was a World War II history buff. At supper one night, he wanted to talk about Bell Ah-BOOR. Margaret told him she didn’t know anything about Bell Ah-BOOR. They went back and forth, at cross purposes. The French history buff made hand motions and airplane noises and sounds of explosions, but Margaret still couldn’t figure out what Bell Ah-BOOR was. “Sacre bleu!” he exclaimed, adjusting his black beret** and beginning to despair of American education. “Ow does ze étudiante américaine not know of Bell Ah-BOOR? It is ze day that shall live en infamie!”

“Oh, Pearl Harbor,” said Margaret. “Sure, I know about Pearl Harbor.”

From there they had a nice conversation about the Pacific Theater in World War II.

**Wardrobe and dialogue have been lightly fictionalized.

*** Bonus Re-Complication of Previous Oversimplification Regarding the Latin Word fama
I said above that the Latin fama means something like “honor” or “good reputation.” I was oversimplifying. Really, fama means “something that is talked about.” It’s a form of the Latin verb fari, “to speak.” In Latin, fama branched to mean two different things. I’ve already mentioned the more positive branch: “honor” or “reputation” is a question of what people are saying about you. The less positive meaning of fama is “rumor” or “gossip” (also a question of what people are saying).

I have always heard that the word infant literally means “someone who can’t speak,” but I never had any other words to connect it with (nor did I ever sleuth it out). But here, at last, is the connection. That root –fant is another form of the verb fari, “to speak.” The prefix in– negates it, giving us infant, a person who is too young to speak. In Latin and various Romance languages, the meaning extended to mean “child” or “youth,” and not just “newborn,” the way we use infant in modern English. Speaking of extension of meaning, foot soldiers were called infantry because they were too youthful and inexperienced to ride with the cavalry.

Another form of fari is fab-, as in affable (inclined to speak to other people), fable (a story that is spoken), and fabulous (so incredible that it might be something out of a fable).

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