How should 'controversy' be pronounced? How are 'refute' and 'decimate' misused? Kingsley Amis's guide, The King's English, revealed all. Martin Amis celebrates his father's interest in language
I knew he was applying the word in its proper sense – "something very bad", and not "something very big in size". And my mistake was certainly atrocious: I had used martial as a verb.
Later, while continuing to avoid hopefully (a favourite with politicians, as he insists), I pooh-poohed his reprimand about my harmless use of the dangling thankfully. I also took it in good part when, to dramatise my discipleship, as he saw it, of Clive James (a very striking new voice in the 1970s), Kingsley started reading out my reviews in an Australian accent. But there was one conversation that I still recall with a sincere moan of shame: it concerned the word infamous.
In a piece about the "Two Cultures" debate, I referred to FR Leavis's "infamous crucifixion of CP Snow". "You leave us in no doubt," said Kingsley watchfully, "that you disapproved of it." I remained silent. I didn't say, "Actually, Dad, I thought infamous was just a cool new way of saying controversial."
Infamous will in fact now serve as the reigning shibboleth (or "test word", or giveaway). Anyone who uses it loosely, as I did, is making the following announcement: I write without much care and without much feeling. I just write like other people write. As Kingsley puts it in The King's English (and "the King", by the way, was a nickname he tolerated):
Both adjective and noun [infamous and infamy] used to be terms of extreme moral disapproval, equivalent in depth of feeling to 'abominable' and 'wickedness'. Then quite recently . . . the adjective weakened in severity to something on the level of 'notorious' [or, he might have added, simply 'famous'] . . . The noun infamy, although seemingly out of use, retains its former meaning, but infamous is now unusable through ambiguity.
Full story at The Guardian.