A reader called me out yesterday for using the term “infamous” to describe the Delta smelt.
“Infamous,” of course, is not synonymous with “famous.” From Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “Infamous: (adj) Having a very bad reputation; notorious; in disgrace or dishonor.”
Some might find that word appropriate in describing a fish that has crimped, to some extent, California’s water supply.
Others honor the smelt as representative of the well-being of the Delta as a whole.
So, yeah, poor choice of words. But it’s not the first time I’ve gotten in trouble on this subject.
A few years ago I referred to the smelt as a “minnow.” Mind you, I put careful thought into that one. Scientifically speaking, the smelt is not a minnow. I knew that. But my dictionary — my infallible, perfect dictionary — told me it would be acceptable to use “minnow” in generally characterizing any small fish.
The angry emails came from fish biologists in the morning.
“Please stop devaluing nature in your writing,” one wrote. “To say the smelt is ‘a minnow with little ostensible value’ is just not good journalism.”
I stand by the “little ostensible value” part. The smelt has little apparent or clearly evident value to the general public. That is not the same thing as flatly saying it has no value.
Anyway, I never called the smelt a “minnow” again. It’s just not worth the confusion. And it’s not as precise as it could be.
At least I tried to be precise, in that case.
“Infamous” smelt? That’s just sloppy.