A date which will live in...

I looked it up in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations to be sure, but I already remembered every word:

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

-- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's War Message to Congress (Dec. 8, 1941)

As I began working on this post on the morning of Dec. 3, I heard a story on CBS radio that a group of survivors of the sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona is determined that this year's reunion will not be their last. There are nine survivors left.

I am confident that this will not be their last reunion. But could this be the last year we understand what infamy is? Honestly, apart from watching Ken Burns' masterful documentary on "The Roosevelts," when did you last hear the word infamy used?

So much is made of "celebrity culture," and little makes me feel older than hearing a list of "celebrities" -- and recognizing none of them.

So what did they do? I ask. Sometimes I read or hear an answer that the person "is notorious for" something -- and it's something very mild.

My dictionary tells me that notoriety and infamy are related: "Infamy -- from French and Latin; ill fame, of ill report, infamous. 1. Very bad reputation; notoriety; disgrace; dishonor. 2. the quality of being infamous; great wickedness. 3. an infamous act."

That's where notoriety belongs -- not the sloppy general use of it as a synonym for fame.

People don't "gain notoriety" -- i.e., become infamous -- for having a lot of money in the bank. They become notorious or infamous for robbing a bank. (Come to think of it, that's an attack.)

So it is with dates, too. My British cousins and friends may disagree with me, for instance, about whether July 4 is famous or notorious. Dec. 25 is famous. Dec. 7 is infamous.

Please, let's not lose the distinction. Infamy is a kind of fame, but for disgraceful, dishonorable, evil reasons.

Let's keep the word infamy among the survivors.

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  • Great post, and beautifully written. Thank you.

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