misnomer ‘misconception’

Back in 2004, George Thompson reported on ADS-L that he’d heard misnomer ‘misconception’ about ten years earlier from a former colleague, and Jon Lighter replied that he heard it “constantly” on news and talk shows, claiming that misconception seemed “no longer to be used on these programs” and that misnomer had come to be the norm rather than the exception. That’s almost surely an exaggeration, but this use of misnomer is widespread. This morning Lighter reported another sighting:

Yesterday an Ohio State Senator said emphatically that “any connection” between collective bargaining and the state’s budget shortfall is “a complete misnomer.”  She used “misnomer” in this way at least twice.

Back on October 21, 2004 I joined in the discussion, starting with an example I heard on KQED’s Forum call-in show that morning, from the American Independent Party candidate for president:

That’s really a misnomer, Bob. Libertarians are really…

I reported that older usage manuals seemed not to have noticed it; I did a quick survey of twenty or so of them. It did appear in Lovinger’s Penguin Dictionary of American Usage and Style (2000):

A guest on a TV interview show said that Henry Kissinger was born in the United States, not in Germany as many people thought. “It’s a common misnomer,” he said.

It wasn’t in Garner’s first edition (A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998)), but made it into the second (Garner’s Modern English Usage (2003)), with several cites. Garner described it playfully as “a kind of misnomer based on a misconception”.

Googling on {“misnomer misconception”} provides quite a few perfectly standard uses of the two words in conjunction with one another, plus a fair number in which they’re treated as (rough) synonyms, as here:

Law Offices of Anthony W. Hernandez (Webster TX)

You, as railroad employees, are not covered by the various state compensation laws. This misnomer or misconception has worked to the disadvantage of many employees like yourself, by having the belief thatthey are cover by Workman’s Compensation and that they will automatically recover benefits without showing more than merely having been injured on the job.

Such examples are especially interesting. Misconception is pretty transparent semantically (once you pick out the right sense of conceive), but misnomer is not (unless you’re a Latinist). So you can get the ‘mistake’ sense of misnomer from context, without understanding that it refers to a very specific sort of mistake. You can also appreciate the fact that misnomer is not very frequent and seems to be rather technical or learnèd. Put those observations together and you’ve got misnomer as a high-style variant of misconception.

The mistake in all of this is misjudging the referential scope of misnomer from hearing it in context — a common enough (and entirely understandable) sort of error that often results in semantic change.  Then, of course, we have occurrences of the broad misnomer in formal contexts, which others can model in their own speech and writing.

In 2004 it seemed to be spreading fast.

In March 2008 Herb Stahlke reported another shade of meaning for misnomer, from an issue of In-Fisherman:

Up in Lake Wobegon country, pike that reach 20 pounds or more are commonly called gators.  Today, most anglers accept the misnomer that consistent fishing for gators is confined to waters beyond the road, somewhere deep in the Canadian wilderness. That’s a myth.

Stahlke noted that misnomer ‘myth’ was common enough that Fact-Archive had an entry:

3.  Something that is not true; a myth
It is a misnomer that elephants are afraid of mice.

Usage note
The extended sense of misnomer meaning myth is generally considered incorrect.

And then Dave Wilton took it back to 1999, in the “Fear Itself” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (air date 10/8/99):

RILEY: Halloween ain’t a night for responsibility. It’s when the ghosts and goblins come out.

BUFFY: That’s actually a misnomer –

RILEY: Well, I didn’t mean real ones.

[DW: In the Buffyverse, demons take the night off on Halloween. They find the holiday too crass and commercial.]

I conclude that it would be a misnomer (a misconception, not as strong as a myth) to think that the usage is being innovated afresh on each occasion of its use; it has spread as a semantic change, like it or not.

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