Misusing misnomer

I have recently encountered many instances of people on the radio and on TV using the word ‘misnomer’ (which has a dictionary definition of “a name that is wrong or not proper or appropriate”) when they seem to mean ‘misconception’ or ‘misunderstanding’. This interview on NPR with an Indiana congressman provides an example of this increasingly common usage. He uses the word at the 2:33 mark in response to a question that begins at around 2:00.

I am not sure why this erroneous usage seems to be gaining ground since the word misnomer itself is not commonly used, while misconception and misunderstanding are.

Do people think that using a somewhat more esoteric word makes them seem more learned and authoritative?


  1. says

    Do people think that using a somewhat more esoteric word makes them seem more learned and authoritative?

    Especially when they use it incorrectly.

    Someone once described William Buckley as “a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.” That’s basically it. If someone is using big words it must be because they’re really smart, not just because they have a big vocabulary.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yeah, most attempts at fulgent logodaedaly end up as inglorious logoicary.

  3. John Morales says

    Rob, I appreciated your neat neological allusiveness.

    Mano, I too concur with the hitherto unanimous consensus.

  4. says

    Someone once described William Buckley as “a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.”

    I think that quote was from the 2012 election where Paul Krugman was describing Newt Gingrich. Works either way, though.

  5. John Morales says

    Of course, such habitual erroneous* usage is how words acquire new senses.

    (cf. prescriptivism vs descriptivism)

    * In one sense; in another, its contextual meaning is obvious.

  6. Holms says

    This reminds me of a pattern I noticed during various arguments I used to have with a particularly stupid slymepitter*, and a handful of the MRAs that infest Ally Fogg’s comment section. Once you’ve used a certain word or phrase a few times in your arguments against them, a person will often begin using the same back at you in their rebuttals. Which is reasonable enough so far -- replying to the assertion of e.g. ‘logical fallacy’ may well necessitate further mentions of the it again -- but the thing I noticed was the manner in which it was used.

    Tellingly, while a literate person would use it in a manner that made grammatical sense, the babbling idiot will not, and will thereby give away the fact that they don’t understand the language deployed against them. What they understand instead is that the argument against them made use of the term, and so they throw it in their own counter accusation apparently hoping that simply sounding like and argument is equivalent to making an argument.

    I have come to view it as the cargo cult approach to argument.

    *Try to guess the slymepitter! rot13: wbuatert

  7. Mano Singham says

    John @#11,

    You are correct that language grows in part by old words acquiring new meanings even as they are used incorrectly. A good example is “I could care less” which is now used as being equivalent to “I couldn’t care less” even through the plain meanings are contradictory. Even someone with a lot of formal education like Hillary Clinton uses the first form. I think that it is here to stay.

    But misnomer is a little more curious because it is not an everyday word or phrase. People who started the incorrect usage had to reach for it and the reason for doing so is what I sought to understand.

  8. Mano Singham says

    hohnjamilton @#13,

    That’s interesting. I had not seen that usage before. Perhaps this is how such things start. Someone uses it incorrectly, perhaps as a typo or makes a mistake while writing quickly and not thinking it through, something that I too have done on occasion. Other people infer the incorrect meaning from the context and use it that way too. And it starts to spread.

  9. Carl Fink says

    I used to have the same misconception about the word “penultimate.” I thought it was essentially a synonym for “ultimate” with “pen” being some kind of modifier the precise meaning of which I never gave much thought to. I was made aware of the error when I saw someone else being corrected for making it.

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