There are many words that have been misused so often that their meanings have started to blur – and writers who should know better have used the wrong words in the wrong places.

For example, I recently read an article in a national magazine claiming that a particular musician had earned his notoriety by producing a couple albums. “Notoriety” was the wrong word – unless those albums were downright horrible.

Many people believe that “notoriety” is synonymous with “fame,” but there’s a huge distinction between the two. Fame is something you earn by doing good, positive, impressive things. Notoriety comes to you when you do something bad – ideally, something truly evil or sinister.  Peyton Manning is famous. Bernie Madoff is notorious. John Dillinger earned his notoriety by robbing banks, while Elliot Ness gained his fame by arresting criminals.

The same rules apply to “famous” and “infamous.” If you’re famous, people look up to you. If you’re infamous, you’re equally notable, but for the wrong reasons. Language is most powerful when it’s precise.