GLOSSARY / I am famous, your honour

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'WELL, a famous victory for Ireland tonight,' said a beaming commentator last weekend. Not so fast, I thought, we'll have to see about that, won't we. Perhaps we should let the last of the spectators leave the ground before we decide. Then again, he was right; television commentators are capable of making an event famous instantly. If enough people are watching, just the saying makes it so.

The Battle of Marathon acquired its fame gradually. After that first heroic race for the deadline the story moved at ox-cart pace from village to village, accumulating in historic density (1) , so that 20 or 30 years later, when old men showed off lacquered scars, there could be no doubt about how famous it had become, itself a welt in the skin of history.

Ten minutes after the whistle had blown in the Battle of Soldier Field, on the other hand, the event was famous already. I'm not sure it's famous any more, but that's the problem with television fame - you have to eat it now because it won't keep.

Only rarely anyway. I have the feeling that OJ Simpson's peculiar slow-motion car chase through the streets of Los Angeles last week will have a certain durability. It will be a famous bit of television, at the very least, as if all those implausible chases in the Naked Gun films - flotillas of black and white patrol cars weaving across the highway - had merely been rehearsals for the real thing.

Both Time and Newsweek gave over their covers to the story and weren't in any doubt about the reason for elevating a Los Angeles homicide to the status of international news. OJ was 'one of the most famous double-murder suspects in history' wrote Time's reporter (I'm not sure who else he had in mind). For Newsweek the police's chagrin (2) was understandable - 'how could they have lost one of the most famous men in America?'

There's nothing complicated about the usage here, though it's interesting that both journals insist on that cautious intensifier (just in case a reader can think of a more famous double-murder suspect). Being famous isn't enough any more, you have to be at the top of the fame tree really to count. There's a certain circularity to the matter, too.

'Famous' derives from the Latin fama, a report (famosus means libellous or slanderous), so, strictly speaking, being famous doesn't imply any particular merit - simply the condition of being widely talked about. Naturally this is more likely to happen if you make the front pages of the news magazines, at which point you become yet more famous and yet more likely to make the front pages.

Historically speaking, famous has usually carried a sense of approbation (although there are obsolete senses in which it means 'ordinary' and 'famously wicked') but famous and infamous are Cain and Abel words, born of the same stock. And the Simpson case presents a particularly vivid example of America's increasing indifference to the distinction between the two.

Michael Fay, released yesterday from a Singapore jail, knows that the talk shows that will make him a million are not really troubled about which version of fame he offers. Tonya Harding also proved that it doesn't matter very much which way the moral scale tips - the sums of money to be earned on either side are much the same.

Infamy was always the poor man's celebrity (3) - now it offers a financial return as well. Even the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who tortured young boys to death, was able to turn a profit from his paintings of clowns, the only merit of which lay in that chilling signature.

In a purely technical sense Simpson has already come into contact with infamy. As his lawyers have no doubt told him, the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution declares that 'No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury'.

When drafted, in 1791, 'infamous crime' was intended to refer to sodomy or gross cruelty - any act, in short, that might cause a general hubbub of condemnation. You would have thought, even in more forgiving times, that slitting a woman's throat to the spinal cord and stabbing a young man to death would still qualify for the term, but it doesn't necessarily seem to be the case, judging from public response to Simpson's arrest.

For black Americans this isn't just a frivolous matter in which fiction has become confused with fact. For most white fans, Simpson's fame was a recreational matter, affection won at leisure. For blacks it was a narrative of achievement and one they are unlikely to relinquish lightly - better a flawed hero than no hero at all. It may be that Simpson's principal defence won't be one of diminished responsibility, but simply that of celebrity.

1 From the Latin densus, thick, crowded.

2 From the French, rough skin (cf shagreen). Used as a primitive sandpaper and thus, by extension, an abrasive trouble.

3 From the Latin celebrem, famous or crowded.