The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “misnomer” a misnomer?

Q: I’m tired of seeing and hearing “misnomer” used to mean a mistake or a mistaken belief. I recently read it again on Salon. Argh! We need to proclaim the correct usage – on blogs, TV, radio, billboards … everywhere.

A: I’ve often thought the same thing. In fact, this occurred to me not long ago when I read a column by the humorist Colin McEnroe, who used “misnomer” correctly.

He made a passing reference to “common sense, a misnomer given how few people have any.” The usage stuck out only because he, unlike many writers, used the word properly!

In the article you refer to, Salon quoted Rep. Robert Wexler, co-chairman of the Obama Florida campaign, as saying: “There’s this misnomer among some in the press that the Jewish community is a one-issue community. It isn’t.”

Wexler, of course, should have used a word like “misapprehension” or “misunderstanding.”

We got the noun “misnomer” from the Anglo-Norman and Old French verb mesnomer (to misname). The noun was first used in the 1400s as a legal term.

To plead or allege “misnomer,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was to claim there had been “a mistake in naming a person or place; an inaccurate description of this nature.”

In the 1600s, another meaning came into use: “A wrong name or designation, esp. one which conveys a misleading impression.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed) now define “misnomer” as an error in naming a person or thing.

To use it as a synonym for “mistake” is a misnomer!

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