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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.

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 markets, mince meat pie, steamroller, tin foil, radio, clothes iron, most music genre titles). 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, free market economy).
  • Pars pro toto, or a name being applied to something which only covers part of a region. The name Hollandmarker is often used to refer to the Netherlandsmarker 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, Greenlandmarker is icy and Icelandmarker 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 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 confuse those unfamiliar.
  • Association of a thing with a place other than one might assume. For example, Panama hats are made in Ecuadormarker, but came to be associated with the building of the Panama Canalmarker.
  • 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.
  • Dispute of criteria on naming. For instance, freeways are generally divided highways with no at-grade intersections or private access, and expressways have no private access but select crossroads. However, two-lane freeway often refers to 2-lane roads without private access but sometimes have at-grade intersections.

Older name retained

  • The term free market (usually referred to capitalism), doesn't refer to an absolute freedom of markets; the market itself is not actually "free", and it has restrictions and resource scarcities. The choice of words is to contrast with Mercantilism.
  • 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 Keswickmarker, Cumbriamarker and elsewhere.
  • Northwestern Universitymarker is in northeastern Illinoismarker, a midwestern state. Illinois was, however, part of the historical Northwest Territory.
  • 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 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 the original metal.
  • 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".
  • Quad bikes are actually ATVs (All-terrain-Vehicles) or OHVs (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".
  • Telephone numbers are sometimes referred to as being dialed despite the fact that rotary phone are now rare.
  • In e-mail, the abbreviation CC refers to the practice of sending a message as a carbon copy, which is a reference to a obsolete practice done with similar intent.
  • 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.
  • Unmotorized bicycles are (in the UK, NZ and Australia at least) often referred to as push bikes, although strictly speaking that term originally referred to the bike's pedal-less predecessor (which literally had to be "pushed" along by the rider's feet).
  • Big-budget live action movies are now done with extensive use of CGI footage.
  • 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, when a widescreen film is so modified, is "Pan and scan".
  • Video recording is called filming even when discussing digital video.
  • "To tape" is a synonym for "to record", even in reference to recordings made onto digital media instead of analog devices such as cassette tape or videotapes.
  • Most professional sports teams contain players from many locales despite claiming allegiance to a single place.
  • 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.
  • The May balls and May Bumps (boat race) at Cambridge Universitymarker no longer take place in May but during "May Week" in June.
  • Hamilton Street Railway no longer operates trams as it did when it was first established and currently operates only buses.


Difference between common and technical meanings


  • 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.

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 Indiamarker, the native peoples were called Indians. Similarly, the West Indiesmarker 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.
  • Newfoundlandmarker was considered newly found by John Cabot, who named it when he sighted it on his 1497 voyage, but had first been inhabited at least 5,000 years before. In fact, Cabot was not even the first European to see the island; Vikings established a short-lived settlementmarker on the island about 500 years before Cabot's voyage.
  • Greenlandmarker is mostly Arctic and Icelandmarker is mostly tundra (the settled portions of Greenland are green). Thus Iceland is mainly green and Greenland is mainly icy.
  • Anti-Semitism generally is used to refer to prejudice against Jews, rather than to all Semitic people.
  • The term "American" is frequently used to mean a citizen of the United States of Americamarker, despite the fact that anyone who lives in the Americas is technically an "American".
  • Christian science, creation science and scientology are religious movements, not sciences. They also have nothing to do with each other.
  • The "Original Six" is thought by many casual ice hockey fans in North America to refer to the six original teams in the National Hockey League. More accurately, it refers to the era beginning in 1942 and ending in 1967 when the league featured only six teams. The concept of these six teams being the "original" league is a misnomer; only two of the six were members of the NHL in its inaugural 1917–18 season, and several NHL franchises, including both charter members and expansion teams, folded prior to 1942. However, from the point of view of modern hockey fans, the term is accurate in a practical sense for the following reasons:
    • As noted above, the Original Six formed the entire league from 1942 until it doubled in size in 1967.
    • While only two of the Original Six were charter NHL members, all were founded no later than the NHL's first decade of existence, and each of them predates the other 24 NHL teams by at least 40 years.


  • 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.
  • The term hyperinflation usually refers to "inflation exceeding 100% a year". It is extreme, but not beyond inflation.
  • A radiator usually transfers more energy by convection than by radiation.
  • In some countries, the term television channel is actually used for a television network. Similarly, in some countries television channels are called stations (from broadcasting stations).
  • Many music videos are actually shot in film, but stored in video.
  • In the United States, the term "college" traditionally refers to an institution which does not grant doctoral or professional degrees. However, there are some "colleges" which have a full range of graduate programs, such as Dartmouth Collegemarker and Boston Collegemarker.
  • The Oktoberfestmarker beer festival actually begins in September and ends in October; although it originally started in October, the dates have been pushed forward because the weather in September is more favourable.
  • The "funny bone" is not a bone — the phrase instead refers to the ulnar nerve.
  • During its peak, rush hour often lasts more than an hour, with very little, if any, movement.
  • None of the Local TV-owned TV stations is branded as Local. This mandate belongs to Post-Newsweek Stations.

See also


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