The terms “fame” and “infamy” are sometimes used interchangeably by people who do not fully understand them. In fact, while both suggest widespread knowledge of a person or deed, one has a negative connotation, while the other has a positive one. Learning to use them correctly will help people to avoid embarrassment, and it will also assist people in following conversations about famous or infamous people. In a society where terrible deeds are often rewarded with copious public attention, discerning between fame and infamy will also help people retain perspective.
Fame refers to renown and reputation, or a position of public prominence. Someone can be famous for making a scientific breakthrough, being very skilled at a sport, or producing remarkable art. All of the associations with fame are generally positive, implying the person is respected and honored as well as being famous. To say that someone has fame or is famous is a great compliment. Many people aspire to fame, and should, because it suggests notable deeds.
On the other hand, infamy is a dubious social distinction gained by committing a terrible act. Hitler is infamous, while Churchill is famous. The associations with infamy are negative, suggesting that although someone and his or her actions are well known, many people wish that this was not the case. Well known criminals can be said to have infamy, because although they are famous in the sense of being well known, they have committed deeds of questionable morals to become well known.
A related concept is the idea of celebrity. Originally, celebrity was used in the same way that “fame” was, and it would have been as incorrect to call someone a celebrity as it would be to call someone a fame. However, the meaning of the word changed, and began to be used to describe people who lived in infamy as well as people who were famous. Criminals and movie stars alike can strive for celebrity status.
The terms can also be used to describe things other than people. A particularly volatile food, for example, might be considered to have infamy, if its intestinal impact is well known. As a general rule, suggesting that someone or something has infamy is considered impolite, as you are indicating a negative association. Calling someone “famous” for committing a terrible act such as mass murder is also inappropriate, because the person has infamy, not fame. Fame implies that someone has become well known for performing good deeds.