Misnomers are discombobulating
I get you, smart guy, I know what you are.
Straight as a corkscrew. Mr. Inside-Outsky.
Like a goddamn bolshevik, picking up your orders
from Yegg Central. You think you're so goddamn
You joined up with Caspar. You bumped Bernie
Bernbaum. Down is up. Black is white.
The Dane to Tommy in Miller's Crossing, Joel and Ethan Coen, 1990
Misnomer from Medieval French misnomer, to misname, from mes-, wrongly + nommer, to name, from Latin nomino, nominare, to name, from nomen, a name. Vocabulary in political speech is a dynamic force. A continuous misnomer continuum houses this vocabulary which vies for position, jousted about by political factions in battle to control its position.
Brian Greene in The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, points out that the term“atom”comes from a Greek word meaning indivisible, or uncuttable.“In the nineteenth century scientists showed that many familiar substances such as oxygen and carbon had a smallest recognizable constituent; following in the tradition laid down by the Greeks, they called them atoms. The name stuck, but history has shown it to be a misnomer, since atoms surely are cuttable.”This type of misnomer, however, does little to degrade our understanding of the atom.
Celibate is another term in which the battle for the term has nearly been won by the misnomer. Its root is from the Latin caelibtus, from caelebs, caelib-, unmarried. Celibate means only “unmarried”without any implication of sexual activity.“Chaste,”not“celibate,”refers to sexual abstinence. Once dictionaries referee in favor of the misnomer, the term becomes just another bete noire for conservative wordsmiths.
Misnomers can result from poor grammar. Terms of improper grammatical usage seem to be increasingly common. For example, the term“healthful”refers to something which results in improved health, as in a healthful habit or meal. The meal itself is not healthy; it will not lead a vigorous life. Yet I often use this misnomer for fear of sounding pedantic.
Objects are often hard to name to a classification. Is a duckbill platypus a mammal? A peanut is not a pea, nor it is a nut. A beernut is not a nut. Considering questions of whether corn is a vegetable or grain, or whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable are trivial pursuits.
An alias is a misnomer which hides the identity of a person, place, or thing as shown in the following account by Laurie Mylroie citing her book Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America: “The key evidence revolves around the identity of the bomb's mastermind, Ramzi Yousef. He entered the United States as Ramzi Yousef, Iraqi citizen, but left as Abdul Basit Karim, Pakistani national. In fact, both names are aliases.”
Misnomers vary in degree of importance in our lives, and may have little effect on human action, but misnomers play a central role in the battle for vocabulary in political speech. They may appear as euphemisms or aspersions. They may appear as personifications, which weave and dodge, attack and destroy. They are powerful tools designed to confuse and to change behavior; they can hold the power of destruction or survival. Hence, the study of vocabulary in political speech is worthy of consideration.