Usage manuals like to point out that notorious refers to someone or something of unfavorable reputation and that the word should not be used to mean merely famous or notable. While this is true to an extent, like many questions of usage the answer is more complicated, and in fact few writers actually use the word mistakenly.
Notorius is a Medieval Latin word meaning “famous, well-known,” and when it was originally adopted into English it carried this value-neutral sense. Notorious isn’t recorded in English until the 1530s, but the adverb notoriously appears several decades earlier, around 1495, and since adjectives generally predate their adverbial forms it is believed that the adjective is at least this old.
Very quickly, however, the word started being associated with fame of an unsavory or infamous nature. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer, for example, uses the phrase “notorious synners.” It was from oft-heard uses like this that notorious acquired its unsavory reputation. But the sense of notorious with neutral, or even favorable, connotations did not go away and remains in use today. There is, however, a subtlety in its use.
When used to describe a person or persons, notorious carries the negative or infamous connotation, even if it is used humorously or in a mildly deprecating fashion, as when, for instance, in his diary of 20 September 1945, Harry Truman describes himself as a “notorious person,” clearly using the word self-deprecatingly to dispel the aura of fame and importance created by the presidency, and not simply to mean “famous” and certainly not to seriously hint that he was some kind of criminal.
But when used to describe things or situations, notorious can have the neutral meaning of simply noted or famous. It can be pejorative, but such connotation has to be derived from the context and not simply from the word itself. Thus you get descriptions of “notorious dance marathons” of the 1920s or of E=mc2 as a “notorious equation.”
Most writers and native speakers of English understand this subtle distinction, even if it is only a tacit understanding, and will seldom use notorious incorrectly.
“notorious, adj.1 and adv,” “notoriously, adv.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, 2003.
“notorious,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, 1994, 668–69.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton