Somewhere in this broad land, near a town called Woodinville, is a residential complex known as Brittany Park. Two years ago the manager sent an in-house bulletin to her tenants. It was a friendly message. She wanted to thank “those of you who continue to exemplify the infamous Brittany Park Hospitality.”

Infamous hospitality?

A follow-up bulletin appeared the next day. The manager had received “a couple of comments” about the word “infamous.” She was not repentant. She said:

“Although the traditional use of this word can have negative connotations, community public relations consultants have confirmed that the modern use of the word is most often associated with being ‘better than famous.’ Additionally, the thesaurus lists ‘notorious’ as a synonym for ‘infamous.’ Synonyms for ‘notorious’ include ‘famous,’ ‘egregious’ (remarkable) and ‘well-known.”‘

Several observations come to mind. First, shoot the consultants. Second, if a writer has any doubt about the meaning of a word, the writer should look it up. Third, writers should stay in doubt. A fourth admonition, good for all occasions, is to this effect: When one is caught with egg on one’s face, one should not pretend it is Oil of Olay.

For the record, American Heritage defines “infamous” as “having an exceedingly bad reputation; notorious; heinous.” The adjective is rooted in the noun “infamy,” defined as “evil fame or reputation.” The New World Dictionary says “infamous” means “in disgrace or dishonor; scandalous; outrageous.” Random House adds “detestable” and “shamefully bad.” Oxford contributes “abominable,” and Merriam-Webster winds up with “disgraceful.” Is the hospitality of Brittany House infamous? Say it is not so!

The author of that bulletin has company. The Historic Seminole Inn in Indiantown, Fla., announced its reopening with an ad in The Stuart News. In addition to lunch on weekdays and dinner on Thursday through Saturday, the Inn will offer “our Infamous Sunday Brunch!” In an outdoors magazine, a company selling models of the airplanes flown in World War II began its full-page ad with a remarkable reminder: “June 6, 1944, D-Day, will live forever in infamy.” No way! It was Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, that became the “date that will live in infamy.”

Some slips of the pen are plainly typographical errors. Proofreading, alas, is a losing, if not a lost art. Other embarrassments stem from ignorance and overconfidence: The adjective “infamous” never on this Earth has meant “better than famous.” But the vast majority of our hoo-haws result from sheer carelessness. We take our eye off the page, and behold: A Methodist church in South Carolina is a non- prophet organization, and John Wilkes Booth was responsible for the assignation of Abraham Lincoln. If we will only pay attention and look things up, we can look at our writing contentedly and say with the French, “Viola!”

James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.


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