I was standing in a long, stationary line at the San Francisco Film Festival, indulging in my favorite waiting-in-line activity: eavesdropping. Directly behind me were a 50-something man and his 20-something daughter, good-naturedly arguing about the correct use of the word infamous. Dad maintained that infamous could mean extremely famous, while Daughter insisted that infamous really meant something more like heinous. The example they were using was footwear designer Christian Louboutin, whose shoes always have red soles. Dad called them "the infamous red soles," while Daughter claimed they were merely "famous."
Well, score one for Gen Y. Louboutin's soles would be infamous only if they were implicated in a triple homicide, or if toxic red dye seeped upward and caused horrific foot burns, or in some other equally dire scenario. Infamous means "notorious, ill-famed, having an exceedingly bad reputation." It even has legal definitions:
a. Punishable by severe measures, such as death, long imprisonment, or loss of civil rights.b. Convicted of a crime, such as treason or felony, that carries such a punishment.
The overheard conversation got me thinking more generally about the way people use prefixes in English. As children, we were told never to use irregardless to mean regardless: the former, we learn,"isn't a word." (Of course, it is a word, probably blended from irrespective and regardless, but it's considered substandard and illogical, not to mention redundant: both the ir- prefix and the -less suffix have the same negative meaning.) Regardless, people still carry on saying irregardless. As with infamous, the extra syllable must make the word sound ... I don't know. Smarter? Stronger? Fancier?
Then there's penultimate, which means "next to last," as in, "Y is the penultimate letter in the alphabet." Yet penultimate is often used to mean "really, really ultimate--absolutely the very last word!"
I'm wondering whether some people think that adding any prefix to a word intensifies its meaning. Do some of us yearn to agglutinate words, to pile on the parts and make our language more Germanesque?
Maybe the prefixizers are following the example of invaluable, in which the prefix does act as an intensifier. Invaluable means not simply "of value"--for that, we could use valuable--but "beyond calculation," "incapable of being valued," "priceless."
Can anyone suggest other such words? Or additional examples of prefix abuse?