AskDefine | Define misnomer

Dictionary Definition

misnomer n : an incorrect or unsuitable name

User Contributed Dictionary



From etyl xno mesnomer, noun use of Anglo-Norman and etyl fro verb mesnomer, from mes- + nommer (from etyl la nominare.


  • (UK) /mɪsˈnəʊmə/, /mIs"n@Um@/
  • (US) /mɪsˈnoʊmɚ/, /mIs"noUm@`/
  • Rhymes: -əʊmə(r)


  1. A use of a term asserted to be misleading.
    • Calling it a driveway is a bit of a misnomer, since you don't drive on it, you park on it.''
  2. A term asserted to be widely used incorrectly.
    • Chinese checkers is a misnomer since the game has nothing to do with China.
  3. A term whose sense in common usage conflicts with a technical sense.

Usage notes

The term misnomer is sometimes used as misnomer of "something asserted not to be true; a myth".
  • It's a misnomer that engineers can't write.


a use of a term asserted to be misleading
  • Finnish: harhaanjohtava (=misleading)
  • Hungarian: névhiba, tévedés, téves elnevezés
a term asserted to be widely used incorrectly
a term whose sense in common usage conflicts with a technical sense


  1.  To use a misleading term; to misname.

Extensive Definition

A misnomer is a term which suggests an interpretation that is known to be untrue. Such incorrect terms sometimes derived 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. 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 markets, mince meat pie, steamroller). This is essentially a with the older item standing for anything filling its role. A particular example is transference of a well-known brand name into a generic sense. (Xerox for photo-copy, or "Kleenex" for "Tissue")
  • An older name being retained even in the face of newer information (e.g., Chinese checkers, Arabic numerals).
  • A name being applied to something which only covers part of a region (e.g., the United States of America only takes up part of the American landmass; the name Holland is often used to refer to the Netherlands while it only designates a small part of that country.)
  • A regional name being retained even when something moves or expands beyond that region (e.g., the United States of America kept its name even after the State of Hawaii was admitted in 1959, which is an archipelago located in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean.)
  • A name being based on a similarity in a particular aspect (e.g., Shooting Stars (Meteors) look like stars from Earth, the settled portions of Greenland are greener than the rest)
  • 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 and palm trees are classified scientifically as related to grass. 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 seem misleading at first blush.
  • 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.
Where items belong in multiple sections, they are listed in the first appropriate section and one or more coloured sectionmarks are used to indicate other sections in which they also belong. For instance, §§Guinea pig is listed under Similarity, but also belongs in Association with place other than one might assume and Reanalysis. The tags used to refer to other sections are:
  • &#39;'&#39;<font color=red>§</font>&#39;'&#39; for Similarity
  • &#39;'&#39;<font color=orange>§</font>&#39;'&#39; for Difference between common and technical meanings
  • &#39;'&#39;<font color=green>§</font>&#39;'&#39; for Ambiguity
  • &#39;'&#39;<font color=blue>§</font>&#39;'&#39; for Association with place other than one might assume
  • &#39;'&#39;<font color=teal>§</font>&#39;'&#39; for Naming peculiar to the originator's world view
  • &#39;'&#39;<font color=fuchsia>§</font>&#39;'&#39; for Reanalysis

Older name retained

  • The May balls and May Bumps (boat race) at Cambridge University no longer take place in May but during "May Week" in June.
  • Fixed income markets no longer deal predominantly with fixed (known) payments.
  • Fullscreen is a term commonly used for home viewing releases (DVD, VHS, etc.) of theatrical films to differentiate from their widescreen counterpart. Yet, due to the rising popularity of 16:9 HDTV sets, it is, for the most part, the widescreen versions that are technically "fullscreen" (depending on their original aspect ratio). Plus, most fullscreen versions of modern films, are in fact cut, zoomed, and panned versions of the original widescreen, so while the image fills a 4:3 screen, it is not in fact a "full" picture. The more correct term is "Pan and scan".
  • Video filming even when talking about digital video
  • 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 plumbum, meaning "lead ore" in Latin, and is still known as "black lead" in Keswick, Cumbria.
  • §Northwestern University is in northeastern Illinois, a midwestern state. Illinois was, however, part of the historical Northwest Territory.
  • Some blackboards are actually green.
  • Tin foil is almost always made of aluminium, 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 originally used for the same purpose.
  • A windmill is a wind turbine whose mechanical output directly drives machinery to mill grain. The earliest wind turbines were windmills. Most new, large wind turbines generate electricity, and thus are properly called wind generators, but many people call them "windmills".
  • In e-mail, the abbreviation CC refers to the practice of sending a message as a "carbon copy", which has nothing to do with carbon copying, an obsolete practice in the internet age.
  • The designation §Castilian Spanish refers to a standard dialect historically associated with Castile.
  • §Clapham Junction is in Battersea (now part of Wandsworth), not Clapham (part of Lambeth); the borough boundaries have changed since the arrival of the railway.
  • Quad bikes are actually ATV's (All-terrain-Vehicles) or OHV's (Off-Highway-Vehicles). The word "bike" (short for "bicycle" meaning "[having] two wheels") incorrectly implies that they have two wheels, instead of the four indicated by "quad".
  • Chess players with little skill are often referred to as "woodpushers", even though modern chess pieces are mostly made of plastic.
  • In minor league baseball, while the New York-Penn League does in fact still include teams from New York and Pennsylvania, it would more accurately be called the "New York-Penn-Massachusetts-Vermont-Maryland-Ohio" league. It has also previously included teams from New Jersey and Canada.
  • Baseball's Pacific Coast League was originally made up only from teams located on the West Coast of the United States, but the PCL now has franchises as far east as Nashville, Tennessee. Minor league baseball's other AAA league, the International League got its name because it originally had teams in both Canada and the United States, but it currently has no Canadian franchises.
  • Telephone numbers are sometimes referred to as being "dialed" despite the fact that rotary phones are now rare.
  • "To tape" is a synonym for "to record", even in reference to recordings made onto digital media instead of analog devices such as cassette tapes or videotapes.
  • 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 American football, a "touchdown" is scored when the ball is advanced across the goal line, but, unlike in rugby football (the game from which American football is chiefly derived), the ball does not have to actually touch the ground for a score to be awarded.
  • American football or rugby football themselves have little to do with foot or ball; a more accurate term instead of football would be handoblate.
  • Bicycles are (in the UK at least) often referred to as "push bikes", although strictly speaking that term actually refers to the bike's pedal-less predecessor (which literally had to be "pushed" along by the rider's feet).
  • Up to and including Windows XP, the Hearts game included is called "The Microsoft Hearts Network", despite there being no network play in the later versions. (The Windows Vista version is simply called "Hearts".)


  • An asteroid is not a star-like object as the name suggests, but a smaller object orbiting a star. The name refers to the appearance in a small telescope. A disc is not seen; it appears as a point of light, literally star-like.
  • §§Guinea pigs are not pigs and do not come from Guinea. The "Guinea" may be a re-analysis of "Guyana", though they originate from the Andes and not Guyana.
  • A multi-valued function is not mathematical function in the proper definition.
  • The same can be said about a generalized function, as such a function cannot be evaluated in some point(s); the only integrals with such functions have a common sense meaning.
  • A disk laser usually is not disk at all; only the pumped region (sometimes) has a disk-shaped form.
  • A lead crystal is not a crystalline solid but an amorphous glass.
  • The Nintendo GameCube is not a cube because the sides are not all squares.
  • The Hundred Years' War did not last for 100 years but 116. It was actually a series of separate campaigns and battles which continued for 116 years (from 1337 to 1453).
  • The Blitz was the sustained bombing of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany between 7 September 1940 and 16 May 1941. Although the word Blitz is a shortening of the German word blitzkrieg, meaning "lightning war", it was not an example of blitzkrieg but was an early example of strategic bombing.
  • Catgut is made from sheep intestines.
  • Podcasting is not limited to the iPod, nor does the technology involve any casting as the consumers pull audio data onto their audio players. However, like broadcasting, it is a way of distributing audio or visual data to large numbers of people.
  • Heat lightning is actually lightning that is too far away for the thunder to be heard, but generally occurs during hot weather
  • Sugar soap contains neither sugar nor soap.
  • Smoked glass is so-called because it looks like smoke, not because it is literally kippered. It is actually a type of stained glass.
  • Salad cream (a mayonnaise substitute) is so-called because mayonnaise is often (although not exclusively, as implied) used as a salad dressing. Unlike mayonnaise, salad cream is not particularly creamy.
  • An egg cream is really chocolate flavored syrup with seltzer and milk. It typically contains neither eggs nor cream.
  • Eggplants, although egg-shaped, are not ova.
  • An egg roll is an appetizer usually made by wrapping a combination of chopped vegetables, not eggs.
  • Head cheese is actually a meat product.
  • Grape-Nuts are made from neither grapes nor nuts.
  • A hot dog is named after its resemblance to a dog's tail – it is not literally a heated canine.
  • A Mountain Beaver (Aplodontia rufa) is a primitive rodent unrelated, though fairly similar in appearance, to beavers not usually found in mountainous areas.
  • "Horny toads" or "horned frogs" are actually lizards.
  • In Baseball, the common term "ground rule double" does not refer to actual ground rules but is, in fact, provided in the standard rules, such as in Official Baseball Rules, Rule 6.09(d) through (h). Likewise, an uncaught third strike is often referred to as a "dropped" third strike, even though it is not actually dropped but it is simply not legally caught by the catcher. In addition, the foul lines on a baseball field are located in fair territory (Rule 2).
  • At Stanford University, the term "Stanford Cardinal" is often thought to refer to the bird. It actually refers to the school's team colors.
  • Photoshopping is often done with image editors other than Adobe Photoshop, such as Paint Shop Pro.
  • Cars are driven on a parkway and parked on a driveway.

Difference between common and technical meanings


see also Ambiguity
  • British Isles is most commonly used to refer to constituent countries of the United Kingdom, British Crown dependencies and Ireland although the Republic of Ireland is not British politically.
  • §Decimal is the name of the base-ten number system (it is Latin for "by tens", the adjective form of the noun decem, "ten"); it does not, as many people suppose, solely mean "fractional" — on the contrary, the base-ten system was called "decimal" for hundreds of years before the so-called "decimal fraction" notation was invented. "Decimal fraction" notation works in any number base (not just base-ten); old computer manuals, from the time when low-level programming of floating-point routines was far more common than it is today, often speak of "binary fractions".
  • Former UK ISP Freeserve was not, as the name appeared to imply (an apparent implication picked-up upon in the advertisements of at least one rival), a service which didn't charge for use; it was so-called because would-be customers were free from the need to contract to using the service, i.e. it was pay-as-you-go (and thus quite expensive for heavy users). This is one of many cases where the situational sense of "free" was or is confused with the fiscal sense.
  • There are two cities named Kansas City (both dating to the 1860s), one in Kansas and one in Missouri. Kansas City, Missouri is considerably larger and contains the metro area's downtown business district. Other major landmarks such as Kansas City International Airport lie in Missouri, and both the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals play there. As a result, the term "Kansas City" can generally be assumed to refer either to the city in Missouri or to the metro area as a whole, and generally not to Kansas City, Kansas specifically.
  • Middle East, Far East, and Sub-Saharan Africa are geo-political terms which are ambiguous.
  • In the United States, an Interstate Highway is a highway which is part of a jointly-funded system, not one which connects two or more states (see List of intrastate Interstate Highways for further information).

Association with place other than one might assume

Naming peculiar to the originator's world view

  • The tremolo arm on guitars is used to produce vibrato; not tremolo. Conversely, a vibrato unit produces tremolo, not vibrato. Both terms are due to electric guitar pioneer Leo Fender.
  • As European explorers mistook the Americas for India, the native peoples were called Indians. Similarly, the West Indies were so called after India. Ironically, the term "Native American" is not only just as wrong as "American Indian", but it is wrong in the same way; while the latter term implies that the people descended from the original population of the Americas were born elsewhere, the former term implies that they are the only inhabitants who were not. Ironically, the name "Indians" for those living on the Indian subcontinent was also applied by travelers from Europe and Asia Minor. The term referred to those peoples living beyond (from the travelers' point of view) the Hindus river. They applied the term "Indian" to the people and "Hindu" to the panopaly of religious beliefs of those people. Thus, there has never been any particular tribe or population of people, either in the western hemisphere or the eastern, who name themselves "Indian." The term has always only been used by outsiders, never (at least originally) by the people themselves who were labeled with that name.
  • Newfoundland was considered newly found by those who so named it, but had first been inhabited at least 5,000 years before.
  • Greenland is mostly Arctic and Iceland is mostly tundra (the settled portions of Greenland are green).
  • Anti-Semitism is prejudice against Jews, not all Semites.
  • The term "American" is frequently used to mean a citizen of the United States of America, despite the fact that anyone who lives in the Americas is technically an "American".
  • Christian science and creation science are religious movements, not sciences.


  • 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.
  • In common usage, a "steep" learning curve implies a difficult learning problem; but on the actual learning curve graph, a steep curve describes a rapid reduction in production cost per unit produced, indicating rapid (easy) learning by the production staff.
  • English speakers frequently ask "why are hamburgers called that when the meat content is beef?"; this is a false analysis (ham–burger; the correct analysis is hamburg–er) resulting from failure to realize that this word is named after the town of Hamburg (most likely the German city, following the tradition in German-speaking countries of naming snack foods after the town with which they're most associated (e.g. "weiner" (Vienna, hotdog), "berliner" (Berlin, doughnut)), although some believe it to be named after the town in New York). The presence of the English word "ham" is coincidental.
  • History derives from the Greek histrios "saga"; it has no connection with the English phrase "his story", and folk etymologies which claim that it does are instances of false analysis. For further examples of this kind of reanalysis-misnomer, see False etymology.



misnomer in Icelandic: Rangnefni
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