Sunday, December 01, 2002

A famously overused word. I think it was when I hit upon the fourth occurrence of "famously" in today's Globe that I threw up my hands and said, "Enough!" (Well, actually, I neither threw up my hands nor said, "Enough!", but you know what I mean.) "Famously" has become a verbal tic of first resort for too many writers. The rule seems to be that if you're describing something even moderately well-known, toss in a "famously." Or, as with the Globe's description of the "famously vicious crocodiles" in Lake Tanganyika, use it even if you're describing something not previously known by a single one of your readers.

Using the Globe's search engine, I came up with seven instances of "famously" today. The other six: "the famously liberal leanings of this city" (in a piece on the Cambridge school system); "He ... famously covered 'All Along the Watchtower'" (Jimi Hendrix's 60th birthday); "the famously staid precincts of Boston Common and Beacon Hill" (a reminiscence of a free Haight-Ashbury-style clinic during the late 1960s); "Genena Overholser ... famously wrote in 1989" (on a 14-year-old rape victim who has made the courageous decision to go public); "Thabo Mbeki ... famously rejected world medical opinion that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus" (an editorial on the AIDS epidemic in South Africa); "The Beatles came, most famously, in the '60s" (a piece on the roots of Hinduism).

By the way, that's two "famously"s in the Ideas section alone. Perhaps, in addition to Ideas, they could also use a Clue.

"Famously" has become a crutch for writers either too lazy or too much in a hurry to come up with something better. Try "memorably," "notoriously," "infamously," or -- and here's a truly radical idea -- no adverb at all.

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