"infamous" = famous

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Feb 20 20:38:35 UTC 2005

At 11:56 AM -0800 2/20/05, Jan Kammert wrote:
>If this is true, then is there a word to replace the meaning I understand
>for infamous (famous for doing bad)?

Well, there's still "notorious", but as dInIs noted, that hasn't
necessarily resisted broadening (or reinterpretation) either.

>My 8th grade students seem to think that assassination means any murder,
>especially a murder for hire.  If that's true, is there a new word that
>means killing someone who is politically important?  I hope the English
>language doesn't lose important meanings as old words take on broader

Well, broadening does happen, although the original narrower meaning
often survives, yielding  autohyponymy, as is happening now with
"guy".  Often the earlier, narrower meaning has to be specified when
necessary by a modifier; what used to be called "oil" must now be
"olive oil", the old "uncle" can now be specified as a mother's
brother, and so on; a pity, perhaps, but the language and its
speakers survive.  Or a new word comes in:  "bird" used to denote the
young of the avian species, which can now be designated as
"fledgeling" or, of course, as "young bird".

The case of "assassination" is interesting.  If we are to trust the
OED's glosses, the earlier meaning merely involved killing "by
treacherous violence", especially "by a hired emissary", which seems
closer to your 8th grade students' use of the term than is the more
specific meaning you suggest, which is basically the one I'd also
have supplied.  I say "basically" because, as Jim McCawley pointed
out, not just ANY murder of a politically or religiously important
personage is ipso facto an assassination--if the governor is killed
by a romantic rival, that doesn't make it an assassination.  This is
reflected in the AHD4's gloss, "To murder (a prominent person) by
surprise attack, as for political reasons".  Interesting how these
accouterments--violence, treachery, political motive, the element of
surprise--seem to come and go.

Of course, some (very old) respondents may object to all of these
senses as involving an unwarranted broadening of the original
concept, since the use of hashish on the assassin's part is no longer
de rigueur...


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