Published: 06th August 2021
English Blues: The Misnomer connundrum and how to combat it
Some words and phrases put our heads in a spin, indicating something, and meaning something else altogether
When we come across a new term, we want to know the meaning of it and why it is called by that name. For example, when we encounter the term “Panama hat” for the first time, based on the context, we can guess the meaning of it and say that it is a type of hat. Once we know the meaning, we try to find out why the particular type of hat is called “Panama hat.” We might guess that it originated in Panama (Republic of Panama) or it is popular in the country. Our curiosity makes us check whether the hat originated in Panama. While checking we are surprised to learn that it is not from Panama at all and it is from Ecuador.
Why should a hat with an Ecuadorian origin be called a Panama hat? Though there is an interesting story behind it, we call it a misnomer. When we say that something is a misnomer, we mean that it describes something incorrectly. In other words, a ‘misnomer’ is a wrong name. Here are some examples:
‘Herbal tea’ is a misnomer because it does not contain tea. It is a beverage made from the decoction of herbs, spices, or other plant material in hot water.
‘Morning sickness’ which includes nausea and vomiting is a misnomer because pregnant women who experience this sickness have nausea any time during the day.
‘Buffalo wing’, which is a deep-fried chicken wing coated with a spicy sauce and usually served with a blue cheese dressing, is a misnomer because it has nothing to do with the animal buffalo. It has something to do with the city called Buffalo in New York.
‘French fries’ (deep-fried potatoes cut into batons) are not truly French. According to Belgian lore, French fries originated in Belgium.
‘English horn’ is neither English nor a horn. It is a woodwind instrument resembling a horn.
There are many misnomers in English just like in any other language. Are they erroneous? No. These terms are accepted in English. So, Herbal tea, morning tea and buffalo wing will continue to be called by these names as they have become common expressions widely used by users of the language.
People who look at words and phrases critically try to find out why certain words are misnomers and how the words impact society. George Orwell, in his essay The Politics of English writes “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Politicians use many misnomers with the intention of misleading the public.
In India, politicians, business barons, industrialists and even those who do not have proper education run educational institutions. These owners of educational institutions are called educationists. Are they really educationists? If the definition of educationists (experts or specialists with knowledge in the theory of education and teaching methods) suits these business people, they can be called educationists. ‘Edupreneur’ (education + entrepreneur) is a better term that describes such people.
In this context, it is good to ask the question whether ‘democracy’ and ‘socialism’ are misnomers. The terms as such are not misnomers. If a democratic nation is not really democratic, it can be said that democracy in the country is a misnomer. Is democracy a misnomer in India?
“The phrase one-night stand is a misnomer. There is no such thing as a one-night stand. Sometimes, what you do for one night destroys your future.” - Anonymous