Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

‘Famous’ is always a lie

with 14 comments

Islero, bull that killed Manolete, exposed in ...
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Let’s say it once more: ‘famous’ is always a lie.

That’s a quote from Guy Keleny writing in the Independent‘s Errors and Omissions column. He was referring to examples such as the following:

This city-centre club is run by Adriana Lima, of the famous Dama de Ferro electronic-music club in Ipanema. (Guardian)

Geake puts famous Kimpton Park Farm HQ on the market for £2.8m (Mail)

“I have been treated like Islero (the bull that killed famous bullfighter Manolete),” said Aragones on hearing he had been fined for his actions. (BBC website)

I may have led a sheltered life, but I’ve never heard of the ‘famous Dama de Ferro electronic-music club’ or the ‘famous Kimpton Park Farm HQ’ or the ‘famous bullfighter Manolete’.

Guy Keleny’s point being that if someone or something or somewhere is famous, there is no need to say so. Note the redundant use of ‘famous’ in the following example:

Penny Dyer is one of the most respected international film and theatre voice coaches and has worked with many famous actors such as Nicole Kidman, Reece Witherspoon and Helen Mirren. (BBC Radio 4, Woman’s Hour website)

So, in summary:

Famous? No need to say so.

Not famous? Don’t lie.

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14 Responses

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  1. Kimpton Park Farm is well known in the horse-racing fraternity, but that doesn’t make it famous. Manolete died 62 years ago, so who, outside bull-fighting circles, remembers or cares? Nope, never heard of the night club and, to be honest, I had to Google Manolete to get the date.The bull, named Islero (Wikipedia), surely deserved some sort of posthumous award.

    Fame implies pretty much universal knowledge of something, not knowledge confined to a group of aficionados, even one as large as horse-racing fans (among whom I don’t number myself – it’s just one of those nuggets of knowledge I’ve somehow acquired). It doesn’t, as Keleny says, apply to any of those examples.

    The information on Penny Dyer, of whom I’ve heard, but until now had no idea who she was, or what she did, filled a gap in my knowledge I didn’t know was there!

    Ron

    31/07/2010 at 2:20 pm

    • Hi, Ron — yes, I agree with your ‘universal knowledge’ definition. I think using the word ‘famous’ is just a lazy way to give copy some faux import. I’m glad you found the Penny Dyer thing interesting!

      Thanks, Ron.

      Deborah

      31/07/2010 at 4:35 pm

  2. What about “infamous”? If someone or -thing is truly infamous, there’s no need to say so; if not, it’s a lie?

    Let’s see: “December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked ….” I guess that, when FDR spoke on December 8, 1941, the attack was hardly infamous.

    Michael Farrell

    31/07/2010 at 5:57 pm

    • That’s interesting. A strokey beard meeting is required. Watch this space.

      Deborah

      31/07/2010 at 6:43 pm

      • I’ve thunk now. (And eaten pizza.) Yes, I think ‘infamous’ should be handled with the same care as ‘famous’. It would be redundant, for example, to refer to ‘the infamous Jack the Ripper’ (although the adjective has been used a gazillion times in relation to him) , just as it would be redundant to refer to the ‘famous Queen Elizabeth II’. Thanks for the interesting question, Michael.

        Deborah

        31/07/2010 at 7:46 pm

  3. This led me to think about use of adjectives in general. It’s a grey, amorphous line between a useful adjective and one that’s mere surplus. You could say “a playful puppy” but isn’t that a given? Or a “stern police officer”? A “dull sermon”? Etc.

    Michael Farrell

    31/07/2010 at 9:38 pm

    • Ah, danger, Will Robinson, danger. We are now entering the outskirts of the louche land of Tautology Central. Motto: Why use one word when two will say the same thing twice?

      This post includes a brief discussion of tautology.

      Deborah

      01/08/2010 at 9:39 am

      • The linked examples seem like redundancies, not tautologies (a rhetorical technique). In any event, “playful” is not the same as “puppy,” since a seal could be playful, too. To me, “baby kitten” is a true redundancy.

        Michael Farrell

        01/08/2010 at 5:26 pm

        • …that’s why I said the ‘outskirts’.

          Deborah

          01/08/2010 at 5:46 pm

          • Call me picky, but a “baby kitten” is a viable concept. A newborn kitten is a baby kitten; one at six weeks old merely a kitten.

            And seals are pretty rubbish at chasing balls or fetching sticks. . . 😉

            Ron

            02/08/2010 at 12:53 am

  4. Hi, Ron — yes, I think you’re right. The ODE says a ‘kitten’ is a ‘young cat’, so not necessarily a baby. Thanks!

    Deborah

    02/08/2010 at 9:36 am

  5. An antonym for famous? (Guy Keleny in The Independent’s ‘Errors and Omissions’ column):

    Nameless dread: Another word that has undergone a strange shift of meaning in recent years is “anonymous”, which used to mean nameless, or of unknown name. This is from a news story last Saturday: “… as he walked home on Thursday afternoon from the pharmacy on Edgware where he worked to Green Court, an anonymous 1940s apartment block where for the last two years…”. Eh? Green Court is not anonymous. You have just told me its name: it is called Green Court. The right word here is “unremarkable”.

    Is it that our fame-obsessed culture needs an antonym to “famous” and has fixed on “anonymous”? Who knows? But in any case “anonymous” is here otiose; no reader would imagine that a 1940s apartment block in north London was celebrated in song and story.

    Deborah

    22/10/2010 at 4:38 pm

  6. The latest from Guy Keleny on ‘famous’ (among other things):

    Cliché of the week: This is from a “Reading List” item on Monday about Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather: “Immortalised on the big screen in Francis Ford Coppola’s famous trilogy, it remains the most recognised and significant account of gangster life in popular culture.”

    Here are three words that should be shot on sight. If something really is famous, the reader already knows and does not need to be told. It follows that “famous” is always either otiose or a lie. “Immortalised” is just a Hollywood publicist’s word for “filmed”. It is such an absurd hyperbole, and we are so used to it, that the eye simply skids across it without registering anything.

    As for “significant”, Evelyn Waugh skewered that half a century ago with the simple question: “Signifying what?”

    Deborah

    31/01/2011 at 10:48 am

  7. Not very famous famous building (Guy Keleny in The Independent):

    Gone West: “A famous building in London’s West End caught fire yesterday,” said a news story on Wednesday. The building in question is on the corner of Aldwych and the Strand, near Somerset House. We Londoners know how difficult it can be to fix the boundaries of districts, but surely nothing east of Charing Cross can be called the West End. Notice also two notorious journalese usages. “London’s West End” is found only in mass media; real people call it either just “the West End”, or “the west End of London”. And “famous” is, as usual, simply untrue. The building is apparently called Marconi House. I’ve never heard of it.

    Deborah

    04/07/2011 at 11:15 am


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