Friday, February 01, 2008

An Infamous Word Choice

Check out the front page of the Press-Republican for January 21, 2008. There’s an article headlined, “Local man recalls Rev. King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.”

Let me share with you the first two paragraphs of this article:

= = =

While it is considered monumental today, many didn’t realize the impact of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech that day.

Ken Wibecan of Schuyler Falls was present for the infamous
[sic] speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963.

= = =

Infamous speech? I don’t think the interviewee used that adjective. The reporter picked it. Why did he do that? Check out the third paragraph:

= = =

“I don’t think many people knew that day that that speech was going to be famous, [Wibecan] said.

= = =

Apparently the reporter was trying to say in the previous paragraph that the speech didn’t become famous until some time later. But in + famous doesn’t mean “not famous,” as in “not yet famous.” It means something entirely different, as any dictionary will prove.

One again the Press-Republican evinces its high standards of journalistic excellence.

Do any editors work at the PR?

NOTE: This blog doesn’t claim to have any high standards of journalistic excellence. I try to do a decent job. Mistakes are made, but keep in mind I'm an organization of one.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn’t even credit the author with the “not yet famous” explanation, because that assumes he tried to logically adjust the words as the piece developed. Bad assumption as far as the P-R goes. This is just a case of someone using a word from a colloquial, rather than academic, reference. Sometimes “infamous” is used tongue-in-cheek, in a comedic or collegial way, to describe good people; and, conversely, the word “famous” is applied to villains, such as Hitler. Or, Ronald Reagan may be “infamous” or “famous” depending on which political party you espouse. If the writer is relying on general oral syntax, where “infamous” means “renowned”, he may have mistakenly thought “infamous” was a compliment.
Both “infamous” and “famous” imply a person or deed that is widely known, notable, and even mythic, and this is the general level that our P-R-writer-wannabe operated from. At the deeper level of famous = good and infamous = bad, it was an insult to Dr. King to use the wrong adjective.
As you point out, where is the editor? There should be a retraction and apology from the P-R.


X. Dell said...

KG's right. Editing should have caught the mistake. The use of "infamous" here might reflect the reality of a generation that believes there is no such thing as bad publicity--hence noteriety becomes synonymous with fame. Then too, maybe the word represents a misguided attempt at some kind of neutrality, mistakenly believing that infamous is more neutral because it doesn't elevate the speech to one of universal acceptance--which in itself would be interesteing.

The wording could have been a simple oversight, though, that wasn't corrected because it didn't show up on spellcheck. And because of semantic satiation, it's diffcult, sometimes, to review your own work.

Luke T. Bush said...


I was just speculating why infamous was used instead of famous. If you read the entire article in print, you will see why I thought the writer meant not famous. The word has been changed on the P-R Web site to "famous."

This reminds me of how the word "flammable" entered the American vocabulary. Semi-literate people thought inflammable meant not flammable or not combustible. So warning signs were changed to read flammable.

Mr. Dell:

I agree it's hard to proofread your own work. I make dumb mistakes, even with spellcheck. But I don't claim, like the Press-Republican did in an editorial, to be a purveyor of journalistic excellence. I try to do a good job. Also, this is a one-person operation: I do it all. The P-R has a few people and someone -- like maybe the editor -- should be catching dumb mistakes. I can understand a mistake now and then, but the P-R screws up much too often, especially when it professes "excellence." Why does a word like “distaster” end up in a P-R headline about a disaster? Someone is too lazy to even use spellcheck.