Q&A: Famous vs famed

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re almost famous…

Q: I have a question about famous vs famed.

A: Okay.

Q: Is there a difference between them? Is Tom Hanks a famous actor or a famed actor? Would I say “Sydney’s famed Opera House” or “Sydney’s famous Opera House”?

A: All good questions.

Q: Am I famous or famed for my questioning of grammar and style?

A: Probably neither. Would you settle for “much maligned”?

Q: Hilarious.

A: But your other questions are excellent, and a little reminder of how English got to where it is today.

Q: By sleeping with all the other languages and never calling any of them back?

A: We were going to say constantly evolving from a variety of sources at different times, but sure.

Q: So what’s the difference between “famed” and “famous”?

A: Essentially, they are synonyms – both adjectives that attribute fame to a person or object. But there have evolved a few subtle stylistic differences.

Q: Okay.

A: To understand them, we should know what “fame” means.

Q: Wait, is this the Debbie Allen moment from the opening theme of the 1980s hit TV show, Fame? “YOU WANT FAME? WELL FAME COSTS, AND RIGHT HERE’S WHERE YOU START PAYING, IN SWEAT.”

A: No, but that was a cool stick.

Q: I miss leotards. I used to have a polka dot pair. Maybe I should wear them again.

A: Well, you know what they say – a leotard never changes its spots.

Q: Groan.

A: Anyway, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, the noun “fame” means both “widespread reputation” and “commonly held in high esteem”.

Q: Okay, sure.

A: So, let’s put that aside for a moment. “Famous” is defined as “celebrated in fame or public report; renowned; well known”. And “famed” is often simply cited as meaning “famous”.

Q: So it’s true that they both mean the same thing?

A: Yes, but they evolved about 200 years apart. Remember the two definitions for “fame” – one being about widespread reputation and the other about high esteem?

Q: Of course. It was like six lines ago.

A: Well, “famous” tends to sit best in the “well known, widespread reputation” camp, while “famed” may have a more reputable “high esteem” vibe – as if it has been gathered by research or consensus.

Q: Examples?

A: Generally we talk about “famous actors” or “famous authors” and things Sydney is famous for. But we might say “Tom Hanks in his famed role as Forrest Gump”, or “the famed author of To Kill a Mockingbird”.

Q: Tom Hanks didn’t write To Kill a Mockingbird…

A: What we’re saying is that they can both convey the same thing, but with subtle differences depending on the vibe you want to communicate. So to say “Sydney’s famous Opera House” feels touristy and lofty. But you might be more likely to read “Sydney’s famed Opera House” in a book on architecture. Neither are wrong, it’s just a matter of style – and “famed” adds a layer of credibility somehow.

Q: Any other areas where “famed” is preferred?

A: Often in describing someone who is highly regarded in an industry – but perhaps not a household name – we’d used “famed”. So, “the famed architect Jorn Utzon” or “the famed physicist Duncan Haldane”. It would seem odd to call them “famous” – and somehow doing so actually makes them sound less clever.

Q: That’s odd, but true. I blame Kim Kardashian – famous for so much, famed for not a lot.

A: Nice.

Q: So, any famous last words?

A: With these situations, it’s less about “right and wrong” and more about choosing the word that feels right. Go with your gut and your sentences will get along famously.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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