From Dutch treats to Venetian blinds, did you know these English misnomers?

Misonomer is a term which doesn’t mean what the words themselves suggest it means

By Shashi Tharoor

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram


Published: Thu 16 May 2024, 5:50 PM

How often have you heard of someone complain he’s being treated as a “guinea pig”, a subject for other’s experiments? It’s reasonable for us to assume that the creature referred to is a pig from Guinea. But “Guinea pigs” are neither pigs nor from Guinea; they’re rodents that originated in the Andes. Even worse, they are not lab rats there, but an edible delicacy in Peru. “Guinea pig” is, in other words, a misnomer — a term which doesn’t mean what the words themselves suggest it means.

English is full of misnomers — familiar terms or phrases that embody a misleading description of what they actually are. “Black boxes” on large jet aeroplanes are actually orange. Peanuts aren’t peas or nuts; they’re legumes. There is no butter in buttermilk. Tugboats don’t tug or pull anything; in fact, they push bigger ships. There’s nothing funny about hitting your funny bone; you’re actually hitting your ulnar nerve, which can be extremely painful. Catgut has nothing to do with cats; it’s made from sheep gut. Then why the name? One theory is that it might be derived from a corruption of “kit”, an old dialect word for a fiddle that was made of strings taken from animal guts.

Place names, in particular, lend themselves to misnomers. English muffins weren’t invented in England but in America. “Welsh rabbit” is a cheese dish. Chinese checkers are not Chinese, but English; it’s a game that descends from a nineteenth-century English game called Halma. French poodles originated in Germany. French fries weren’t invented in France but in Belgium. Danish pastries aren’t from Denmark but Austria, and Great Danes come from Germany, not Denmark. The Norway rat originated in North China. Russian dressing was invented in the United States. Jordan almonds originated in Spain. The Dutch are blamed and credited for a lot of things they have nothing to do with: “Dutch treats” are not a habit in the Netherlands, people in Holland don’t talk “Double Dutch”, Dutch clocks originated in Germany and Hollandaise sauce originated in France!

Sometimes the English misnomers are from other words garbled in translation from other languages. Jerusalem artichokes come from North America, not Palestine; the word “Jerusalem” is most likely a mangling of the Italian word for “sunflower”, girasole! The English horn is neither English nor a horn. It is, in fact, an alto oboe from Poland, a woodwind instrument with an angled mouthpiece. The word “English horn” mistranslates the French word “anglé”, which means “angled,” but sounds exactly like “Anglais”, which means “English”! Bombay duck is from Bombay, but it’s not a duck, it’s a fish. The fish was sent up on the mail train from Bombay; “mail” is “daak” in Hindi. The Canary Islands weren’t named after canary birds but after dogs, an extinct breed of large dogs (Canis in Latin) that once roamed there. The islands got the name before the bird did!

Sometimes misnomers come from simple mistakes of geographical attribution. Panama hats come from Ecuador. The Harlem Globetrotters began in Chicago. Although Venetian blinds were popular in Venice, they originated in Japan, where they were made of bamboo. The Isle of Dogs in central London isn’t an island but a peninsula, but whoever named it had a better sense of euphony than accuracy. India ink is from China and Arabic numerals are from India. And while we’re on the subject of numerals, and that too Indian ones, the famous “Fibonacci sequence”, in which each number is the sum of the previous two (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21...), was first discussed by Indian scholars several centuries before Fibonacci ever thought of it!

Numbers also lend themselves to English misnomers. The “second hand” on a watch is the third hand. There are 1,864 islands in the “Thousand Islands” archipelago. Napoleon’s famous “Hundred Days” — the period between his return from exile on March 20, 1815, to the restoration of the French monarchy on July 8, 1815, lasted 111 days. The “Thousand Days’ War” actually lasted 1,130 days. The “Thirty Days’ War” was part of a series of larger battles that lasted 304 days. The “Hundred Years’ War”, in fact, lasted 116 years — but the “Eighty Years’ War” did indeed last 80 years!

More news from Lifestyle