Do your recognize these two people? Do you have an opinion about them?

Adolf HItler standing in front of Nazi officers. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Taylor Swift performs at a concert. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You'd probably identify these as Adolf Hitler, dictator and murderer of more than 6 million Jews during World War II and Taylor Swift, pop and country music superstar of the present.

Both are well known but only one of them can be called "famous" and one of them "infamous."

Exploring "Fame"

Fame is defined by as the state of being widely known or recognized.

The adjective form of fame is "famous" (pronounced "FAY muhs").

By this definition, it might seem both Swift and Hitler could be called famous. They are both widely known and recognized.

Flaticon Icon However, fame has nuance (deeper non-dictionary meaning) that suggests that the person (or thing) must be something positive or good and recognized for their contributions to society or achievements.

So when you think of famous, you can think of people like your favorite musicians, artists, TV or movie personalities. You can think of people who did good things for the world like Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Ghandi, or Nelson Mandela.

An animation of a Gandhi quote:

An animation of a Nelson Mandela quote:

Famous people do great things. On the other hand...

Unpacking "Infamy"

Infamy (pronounced "IN fuh mee") is kind of the opposite of fame. The adjective form is "infamous".

People who are infamous are widely known and recognized too — but for different reasons that are almost always bad. The word "notorious" often comes up when describing their bad deeds or the reasons they are widely known.

Aside from Adolf HItler, who is arguably the most infamous person in history, here are a couple of others:

Ted Bundy in a courtroom. Serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to killing more than 30 people over approximately 30 years.

A portrait of Pol Pot. Mass murderer Pol Pot, who was the leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and was responsible for up to 2.5 million deaths.

These people are clear examples of "infamous." While they are widely known and recognized historically, we recognize them not so much by their face as by their terrible deeds. Dr. Evil from Austin Powers says,

Can you think of people in your own memory or culture who are well-known to have done terrible things?

Between Fame and Infamy: Grey Areas

Sometimes the distinction between famous and infamous is not so clear...

Who is this?

Michael Jackson dances the moon walk. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 50 or 60 years, you know this is Michael Jackson.

But is he famous? OR is he infamous? Could he be both? Fresh Prince of Bel Air wearing a pink baseball hat backwards. He looks deep in thought.

Over his lifetime, MJ created some of Pop Music's most recognizable tunes. Not only was he a pop superstar, he was also a notable philanthropist, donating millions of dollars to various causes around the world.

Michael Jackson dancing in the video for his hit song

But he was also controversial over alleged sexual abuse, and this tarnished the memory of the good things he did — making him both famous AND infamous.

Quiz: Famous or Infamous?

Look at these pictures and descriptions A, B, C, and D. Select the ones that could be called infamous based on the descriptions.

A. Beyonce

Beyonce flips her hair while performing on stage.

  • Pop, R&B, and now country artist

  • Winner of 32 Grammy awards

  • Star of 13 movies

B. Harvey Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein poses for a photo.

  • TV and movie producer

  • Won an Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love"

  • Accused by several actresses of sexual abuse and harassment

  • Currently in prison

C. Donald Trump

Donald Trump makes mocking gestures on stage.

  • 45th President of the United States

  • Businessman & television personality

  • In trouble with the law in at least 4 states

  • Found guilty of sexual abuse and business fraud in the State of New York

D. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley performs in a film.

  • Recording artist and actor

  • Won 3 Grammys and starred in 31 movies

  • Recorded classic tunes like "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock"


Which of the above people could be called "infamous" based on the description above

Take Action

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