Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Misnomers and Misconceptions

Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, offers useful tips to copy editors and anyone else who prizes clear and orderly writing. Here she looks at the common misuse of the word misnomer.

Last month, I watched the Olympics as much as work would allow, and enjoyed the shots of the Vancouver area. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and when I see views of the region, I want to hop on a plane and head straight for the rocky beaches to spend a weekend poking through tide pools and breathing in that briny, fir-scented air.

I get a dose of home by going with my daughter to the American Museum of Natural History and walking through the hall that houses examples of the art and artifacts of the Pacific Coast Indians. There, totem poles stand at the support pillars; removed as they are from their context, they're still awe-inspiring, in the true sense of awe that mixes wonder with fear.

Totem poles were the subject of one of those "local color" features that the television programmers use to fill the gaps between Olympic events. I was only half listening to the reporter, finding nothing new in what he was saying, until he said, "People often think that the image at the top of the pole is the most important, but that's a misnomer."

Well, no, it isn't. It's a misconception, not a misnomer.

The -nomer part of misnomer comes from the Latin word for name. A misnomer is an incorrect use of a name. For instance, when I mention to people that my family lived in Fort Bliss for a short time, I often add that Fort Bliss is a misnomer, because there was nothing blissful to me about the place when I lived there. Calling what is now the Government Accountability Office the General Accounting Office is a misnomer. When scientists reclassified the animal now known as an apatosaur, brontosaur(us) became a misnomer.

I've heard misnomer misused with more frequency in the last few years; it seems to have joined is comprised of, parameters, and sundry other "big" words and expressions that are trotted out by people who have heard them used by other people who are also trying to sound smart, without actually looking up the words to be sure they're using them correctly.

And speaking of awe: A phenomenon related to this disregard for looking things up is the apparent attitude that one homophone is as good as another. Exhibit A is a comment that was posted this past week to the Facebook page of one of my cousins, who has just become a grandfather at the advanced age of 40. He had uploaded the usual new-baby pictures, and one of his friends wrote, "Awe...She's beautiful!"

(And no, she was not making a deliberate play on awe/aw.)

Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday March 17th 2010, 8:13 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Thanks for an entertaining article. Re the indiscriminate use of homophones, it can be hard to tell if someone's punning---then it's just offal.
Wednesday March 17th 2010, 9:06 PM
Comment by: Lori E. (Brampton Canada)
I agree completely with everything you said, except for comprise. I think we must admit to defeat on this one. Its new uses are not limited to people trying to sound smart. I am in grad school and I see it all the time in academic writing. The benefits of having an open language are growth and change.

On a different note, my skin crawls when newscasters confuse count and non-count nouns and can't seem to use 'take' and 'bring' correctly. Maybe once we deal with these basics in the media, we could move on to comprise.
Wednesday March 17th 2010, 10:28 PM
Comment by: Mark A. (Bexley, OH)
And speaking "awe," I wonder if your cousin's friend is near the start of an inevitable trend. Several dictionaries I checked lack a positive sense for the word "aw." Webster's New World allows for "mild sympathy" and American Heritage includes "sympathy" and "tenderness." Merriam-Webster Unabridged, Macmillan, the OED and the Oxford American have no such definitions. So if friend of cousin didn't consult American Heritage, she may have been confused about how to spell her exclamation. Certainly, she wouldn't find the right word under "awe." But the growing popularity of "awesome" probably influences the common misspelling "awe, cool." Sure, it's spelled "ah, cool," but it's more often pronounced with a "w."

I'm not advocating for "awe" as a general exclamation, but it may be something we see more of, such as on Facebook or at the Etsy store, awecute.com.
Saturday March 20th 2010, 7:11 PM
Comment by: Jan Freeman (MA)
I was interested to hear about the misuse of "misnomer," but I think we might all be more cautious about characterizing people who misuse words as "trying to sound smart." I don't see how we would know the motivation (unless the speaker is someone close to us). How about a more generous interpretation -- that people learn almost all their language, correct or not, from other people (how many words do you learn by "looking them up"?), and that somewhere in this endless chain of learning by imitation, meanings are (naturally) sometimes imperfectly conveyed?

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