Famous, Notorious, Infamous

Which is Easier: To Become Notorious or to Become Famous?

by Owen Fourie

A well-known person of unquestionable character is notorious or has gained notoriety.

Really? I have heard the words notorious and notoriety used in this way, and it disturbs me because it is wrong and it can have undesirable repercussions.

Instead of using the words famous or fame, some people say notorious and notoriety. While this can be done in jest, among friends, no humor was intended in the instances that I have in mind.

There is evidently some confusion regarding the adjectives notorious and famous and the nouns notoriety and fame. The purpose of this article is to bring some clarity to help you to use these words correctly.

Misusing them could have serious legal consequences, and a plea of ignorance is indefensible.

Notorious and notoriety

The Latin root for these words means well known. There is nothing in this root that allows you to judge whether the well-known person or thing is good or bad.

This was the original meaning of notorious as it was used in the middle of the sixteenth century. It wasn’t long before its neutral character gave way to a use that associated it with persons and things of unfavorable repute. [Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1994. Print.]

Whoever or whatever is described as notorious is said to be famous or well-known in a bad way for some bad quality or action. You cannot apply notorious or notoriety to anyone or anything of good repute.

  • The police-detective had no doubt that the series of bank robberies was the work of the notorious mastermind who had evaded capture for many years.
  • The downtown area of this city is notorious for its danger to tourists who do not heed the warnings not to go there.


A synonym that can be used for notorious is the word infamous.

Infamous doesn’t mean without fame. Whoever is described as infamous is said to be famous in a particularly bad way. This is a person who is well known for shocking conduct, someone who has an egregious reputation.

  • The infamous sheriff was found guilty of masterminding the series of bank robberies.
  • The surgeon’s infamous misconduct received its just reward when the medical council revoked his license.

Famous and fame

The word famous is commonly associated with what is well known for good things.

What is notorious can also be said to be famous, although you would understand this to mean famous in a bad way, as noted above.

American philosopher, educator, and author Mortimer Adler made this plain by his distinction between fame and honor:

Those totally lacking in virtue may achieve fame as readily as, perhaps even more easily than those who are virtuous. Fame belongs to the great, the outstanding, the exceptional, without regard to virtue or vice. Infamy is fame no less than good repute. The great scoundrel can be as famous as the great hero; there can be famous villains as well as famous saints… [Adler, Mortimer Jerome. Desires, Right & Wrong: The Ethics of Enough. New York: Macmillan, 1991. Print.]

In view of the confusion that has arisen with the application of notorious to people of virtue, it makes sense to adopt a rule that tells you to

  • use famous and fame for people and things of good report (but know that famous is not incorrectly applied to the bad);
  • use notorious and notoriety for people and things of bad report (and know that notorious should never be applied to the good).

Here are two sentences demonstrating the correct use of famous and fame.

  • Sir Winston Churchill’s first speech as Great Britain’s wartime premier included the famous line “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
  • Jackie Evancho, a talented American singer, has achieved fame at an early age.

Which is Easier: To Become Notorious or to Become Famous?

The answer to this question is not straightforward. You might think notoriety is easier to achieve than fame because you could become notorious by doing little, whereas becoming famous often involves hard work.

Actually, becoming notorious could also require hard work, especially if it means tricking the controlling system for a long time before you are discovered doing so.

Obviously, notoriety should not be your objective.

Some innocent people can become notorious, easily and mistakenly, because of prejudice, false accusation, and profiling by apparent keepers of the law whose judgments are not infallible.

Being famous could also be the outcome of inheritance, which is well used to your advantage and for the benefit of humanity.

As you will see, there is no cut-and-dried answer to this question, but this exercise has, at least, given you a better grasp of the correct usage of fame, famous, notoriety, and notorious.


Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome. Are you struggling with confused words or any other aspect of grammar and correct usage? Ask here for clarification.

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  1. […] and usage sites all over the internet are filled with cautionary warnings against it, such as this one: “You cannot apply notorious or notoriety to anyone or anything of good repute.” On […]

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