[Ads-l] words connected to a single provenance

Geoffrey Nunberg nunbergg at GMAIL.COM
Thu Aug 30 01:10:01 EDT 2018

First, I think “provenance” was absolutely mot injuste to use here. What’s notable about ‘infamy’ is that it been around for centuries but is associated by most speakers who are familiar with it today with its use in a single context.  That distinguishes it both from well-known quotations and words and proper names associated with the people who coined them, like Churchill’s “Iron Curtain,” or “authorisms."  “Elementary” seems to fit the bill. So do “valediction” and “slouching.”  (I mentioned this to a friend who said, “Well, until I was about seventeen I associated ‘dukedom’ exclusively with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl.”)

The reason I asked is that it seems to me that FDR’s speech did a lot to put ‘infamy’ back in circulation for a while. It was a pretty obscure word at the time (Google ngrams shows a 90 percent decline from 1800 to 1940, and Safire notes that it was "It was an unfamiliar word to most people”). But FDR’s speech was heard by 60m people, in 80 percent of American households, and the phrase almost instantly became a shorthand for the Pearl Harbor attacks and then a cliche to trot out for a calamity of any size, particularly when truncated to “day of infamy.” 

My theory is that the spike inhibited the reanalysis of ‘infamous’ as ‘in’ + ‘famous’, with ‘in’ as a kind of intensifying prefix as many people take it to be in ‘inflammable’. (The logic is laid out in a scene from Three Amigos https://is.gd/36xebD). I think it’s unlikely that anyone who is familiar with FDR's use of ‘infamy' would be tempted to assume that ‘infamous’ is other than pejorative. So the spread of the newer usage is a sign that those words, not surprisingly, have been slipping from the collective memory. This isn’t to say that people who don’t make the FDR association will necessarily get ‘infamous’ wrong, but that the diminishing number of ones who do will get it right. 

(BTW, I was surprised to see that the ‘infamous’ misuse isn’t listed in MWDEU or other usage books until pretty recent--Strunk and White don’t mention it, nor does AHD1, Morris’s Harper Dict of Contemporary Usage, or the Camb Book of Eng Usage. I don’t exactly when it was designated a bugbear, but my sense is that if it had been common in the 1950s and 60s, somebody would have thrown a hissy fit and Ward Gilman would have included it in MWDEU—he didn’t miss many of these.)


From: Stephen Goranson <goranson at DUKE.EDU>
Subject: Re: words connected to a single provenance
Date: August 29, 2018 at 2:02:22 AM PDT

As to what may or may not fit the request by Geoffrey Nunberg, whose example, infamy, came from a speech* (in a sentence), such may be up to him--yes, kemosahbee?


*[My Mother (then a secretary in the Veterans Administration congressional liaison office) stood at the back of the House floor that Dec. 8.]


I’ve been trying to come up with words in more-or-less general use that are
associated with a single prominent historical or literary provenance —
not hapax legomena, but items like “infamy,” which for most people
who know it brings FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech to mind but which is used
in other contexts as well.



The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

Geoffrey Nunberg
Adjunct Full Professor
School of Information
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley CA 94720
ph. 510-643-3894
nunberg at ischool.berkeley.edu

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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