A misnomer is a term which suggests an interpretation that is known to be untrue. Such incorrect terms sometimes derive their names because of the form, action, or origin of the subject becoming named popularly or widely referenced—long before their true natures were known.


Sources of misnomers

Some of the sources of misnomers are:

  • An older name being retained as the thing named evolved (e.g. pencil lead, tin can, fixed income market, mince meat pie, steamroller, tin foil, clothes iron, digital darkroom ). This is essentially a metaphorical extension with the older item standing for anything filling its role.
  • Transference of a well-known product brand name into a genericized trademark (e.g. Xerox for photocopy, Kleenex for tissue or Jell-o for gelatin dessert).
  • An older name being retained even in the face of newer information (e.g. Chinese checkers, Arabic numerals).
  • Pars pro toto, or a name being applied to something which only covers part of a region. The name Holland is often used to refer to the Netherlands while it only designates a part of that country; sometimes people refer to the suburbs of a metropolis with the name of the biggest city in the metropolis.
  • A name being based on a similarity in a particular aspect (e.g. shooting stars (Meteors) look like stars from Earth, Greenland is icy and Iceland is greener).
  • A difference between popular and technical meanings of a term. For example, a koala "bear" (see below) looks and acts much like a bear, but from a zoologist's point of view it is quite distinct and unrelated. Similarly, fireflies fly like flies, ladybugs look and act like bugs. Botanically, peanuts look and taste like nuts. The technical sense is often cited as the "correct" sense, but this is a matter of context.
  • Ambiguity (e.g. a parkway is generally a road with park-like landscaping, not a place to park). Such a term may confuse those unfamiliar.
  • Association of a thing with a place other than one might assume. For example, Panama hats are made in Ecuador, but came to be associated with the building of the Panama Canal.
  • Naming peculiar to the originator's world view.
  • An unfamiliar name (generally foreign) or technical term being re-analyzed as something more familiar.
  • Anachronisms, terms being applied to things that belong to another time, especially much later, such as the Dendera light interpretation of a mural from the Hathor Temple of Ancient Egypt.


Older name retained

  • The lead in pencils is made of graphite and clay, not lead; graphite was originally believed to be lead ore but this is now known not to be the case. The graphite and clay mix is known as plumbago, meaning "lead ore" in Latin, and is still known as "black lead" in Keswick, Cumbria and elsewhere.
  • Blackboards can be black, green, red or blue. And the sticks of chalk are no longer made of chalk, but of gypsum.
  • Tin foil is almost always actually aluminum, whereas "tin cans" made for the storage of food products are made from steel plated in a thin layer of tin. In both cases, tin was the original metal.
  • Telephone numbers are usually referred to as being dialed although rotary phones are now rare.
  • When a computer program is electronically transferred from disk to memory, this is referred to as loading the program. "Load" is a holdover term from the mid-20th century, when programs were created on punched cards and then loaded into a hopper for automated processing.
  • In golf, the clubs commonly referred to as woods are usually made of metal. The club heads for "woods" were formerly made predominantly of wood.


Difference between common and technical meanings

  • Koala "bears" are marsupials not closely related to the Ursid family of bears. The name "koala" is preferred in Australia, where koalas are native.
  • Jellyfish are not fish (but they do have a gelatinous structure similar to jelly).
  • A peanut is not a true nut in the botanical sense, but a legume. Similarly, a coconut is not a true botanical nut.
  • Tear gas is not a gas, but a (solid) crystalline substance.[1]

Association with place other than one might assume

  • Arabic numerals originated in India, though they came to be associated with the Arab world.
  • The Norway Rat (Rattus norvegicus) did not originate in Norway, but from North China.
  • French horns originated in Germany, not France.
  • Chinese checkers did not originate in China (nor in any part of Asia).


  • In logic, begging the question is a type of fallacy occurring in deductive reasoning in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises. However, more recently, "begs the question" has been used as a synonym for "raises the question".
  • A quantum leap is properly an instantaneous change, which may be either large or small. In physics, it is the smallest possible changes that are of particular interest. In vernacular usage, however, the term is often taken to imply an abrupt large change.


  • While dry cleaning does not involve water, the process does involve the use of liquid solvents.
  • A radiator usually transfers more energy by convection than by radiation.
  • The "funny bone" is not a bone — the phrase refers to the ulnar nerve.

See also


  1. ^ Modern Marvels:Non-lethal Weapons. The History Channel.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • misnomer — is the wrong use of a name for something or someone inappropriate or undeserving: • My name of Epic s no misnomer Byron, 1818 • Morning sickness is a misnomer it can strike at any time The Guardian, 2000 • ‘Copy cat’ is a misnomer because cats… …   Modern English usage

  • misnomer — mis·no·mer /ˌmis nō mər/ n [Anglo French mesnomer, from mesnomer to misname, from Middle French mes wrongly + nommer to name, from Latin nominare, from nomin nomen name]: the misnaming of a person in a legal document or proceeding (as in a… …   Law dictionary

  • Misnomer — Mis*no mer, n. [OF. pref. mes amiss, wrong (L. minus less) + F. nommer to name, L. nominare, fr. nomen name. See {Name}.] The misnaming of a person in a legal instrument, as in a complaint or indictment; any misnaming of a person or thing; a… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Misnomer — Mis*no mer, v. t. To misname. [R.] [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • misnomer — (n.) mid 15c., mistaken identification of an accused or convicted person, from Anglo French, O.Fr. mesnomer to misname, wrongly name, noun use of infinitive, from mes wrongly (see MIS (Cf. mis ) (2)) + nomer to name, from L. nominare nominate… …   Etymology dictionary

  • misnomer — ► NOUN 1) an inaccurate or misleading name. 2) the wrong use of a name or term. ORIGIN from Old French mesnommer misname , from Latin nomen name …   English terms dictionary

  • misnomer — [mis nō′mər] n. [ME misnoumer < OFr mesnommer, inf. used as n. < mes ,MIS 1 + nommer, to name < L nominare: see NOMINATE] 1. a) the act of applying a wrong name or epithet to some person or thing b) such a name or epithet …   English World dictionary

  • Misnomer — (Roget s Thesaurus) < N PARAG:Misnomer >N GRP: N 1 Sgm: N 1 misnomer misnomer Sgm: N 1 lucus a non lucendo lucus a non lucendo Sgm: N 1 Mrs Mrs GRP: N 2 Sgm: N 2 Malaprop Malaprop Sgm: N 2 what d ye call em what d ye call em …   English dictionary for students

  • misnomer — UK [mɪsˈnəʊmə(r)] / US [mɪsˈnoʊmər] noun [countable] Word forms misnomer : singular misnomer plural misnomers a name or description that is incorrect or unsuitable Cottage is perhaps a misnomer for such a large house. a bit of/something of a… …   English dictionary

  • misnomer — n. a misnomer to + inf. (it s a misnomer to call this village a city) * * * [mɪs nəʊmə] a misnomer to + inf. (it s a misnomer to call this village a city) …   Combinatory dictionary

  • misnomer — 1. noun /mɪsˈnəʊmə,mɪsˈnoʊmɚ/ a) A use of a term asserted to be misleading. Calling it a driveway is a bit of a misnomer, since you dont drive on it, you park on it. b) A term asserted to be widely used incorrectly. Chinese checkers is a misnomer …   Wiktionary

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