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Steven Poole’s, Word of the week : ‘Infamous’

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Poetry, From private to public

At the Conservative party’s conference, Boris Johnson claimed that “the idea of a second [Brexit] vote is infamous”. But is it? An “infamous” thing or person, in modern usage, is generally agreed to be bad . A potential referendum is not infamous in this sense, since lots of people support it. There is an older use, however, in which “infamous” means just “deserving of infamy”, ie horrible. So Johnson used it correctly in its old sense while dishonestly implying, in the modern sense, that everyone agreed with hi m. Happily, the law used to contain a category of “infamous person”, who, by dint of certain crimes, was “disqualified for public appointment, any public pension or allowance, the right to sit in parliament or exercise any franchise” (OED). Can we think of anyone who deserves to be declared an infamous person?

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