Notoriety versus Fame

A student remarked, “She’s famous.” What for? I asked. When he described her misbehaviors, I realized my student really meant the woman had notoriety, that is, “being well known for a bad quality or deed.”

I’ve noticed folks sometimes confuse notoriety and fame. Very public bad behavior will usually result in notoriety. Let’s take an ancient example. Over two thousand years ago, Cleopatra’s bad behavior gained her notoriety. She moved with her boy-husband to Rome but lived openly with her Roman lover, Anthony. She had notoriety, not fame. When an athlete is a hothead and has a habit of punching in the nose those with whom he disagrees, he will quickly gain notoriety.

When we confuse notoriety with fame, we suggest to other people that somehow this person is to be emulated. A young impressionable person may want to “be like that famous person.” The difference between notoriety and fame may sound like mincing words. Maybe it is just a small difference, but it may be a difference that matters.

Notoriety usually doesn’t take much talent; it’s not admirable, and it shouldn’t be imitated.

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