Is there a general word for someone or something popular or loved by the masses but that has not been proven to be effectual (like how some would use the term "pop psychology" pejoratively)? Examples would be how things like popular psychology or holistic medicine are accepted excitedly by numerous people while not being proven to be useful to the majority.

UPDATE: Thanks for you responses. I think the word "fad" (or "hype") would come closest to what I was looking for (thank you for that).

But is there a more general or appropriate term? I'm not American so apologies in advance (this is strictly for the sake of discussion): the only example I can think of is certain voters who were initially excited about Obama, but came to be disappointed after he failed to meet their expectations. Is there a word that could be used to describe Obama in this context? Something well-loved which turns out to be a disappointment.

  • folk wisdom seems related, but I don't think that's what you're looking for.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 18:52
  • There are lots of them, since the phenomenon is so plentiful. In popular culture,... In popular terms,... Common wisdom has it that ... Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 18:52
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    I think it rather depends on exactly who you mean by "skeptics", and exactly how strongly people believe in their "popular misconceptions". It's very "popular" to say "Bless you!" when someone sneezes, for example, but I doubt many people today really think they're saving you from losing your soul. That may be a ludicrous belief, but arguably it's not so easy to dismiss on "scientific" grounds - not at all the same thing as believing the world/universe was created in 4004 BC (along with all the fossils and physical laws that "prove" a conflicting explanation). Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 19:06
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    Nostrum (usually used for a medicine that is not effective and not accepted by authorities)
    – ermanen
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 21:34
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    @ermanen You are spot on. I would post that as an answer if I were you. The OED confirms both the 'quack medicine' meaning and the wider sense of a pet scheme, or favourite remedy.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 0:21

11 Answers 11


"Snake oil (wiki)" seems to fit the bill.

  • What is 'snake oil'? What does it mean?
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 18:58
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    @Josh61 - "Snake oil" is what was supposedly sold by traveling salesmen selling magical elixirs for the treatment of virtually any malady one could have. Typically they'd have a caravan-style wagon (horse drawn) and would (in the movie version, at least) stand on the running board and hawk their wares.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 21:59
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    I briefly misread this as "Snail Oil", and thought that it was some variant of "Snake Oil" that I'd never heard before. I kinda like it. Sounds especially unappealing.
    – KChaloux
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 22:20
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    @HotLicks - I just expected the user to add this information to his answer!!
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 22:22

Calling it an "old wives' tale" would work. From Merriam-Webster:

old wives' tale (noun)

a common belief about something that is not based on facts and that is usually false


You can consider nostrum. It is a medicine in conventional use but not proven to be effective, or an ineffective but favorite remedy, scheme, theory etc. to solve a problem. It comes from the Latin phrase nostrum remedium "our remedy".

OED definitions:

  • A quack remedy or patent medicine, esp. one prepared by the person recommending it. Also in extended use.

  • fig. A means or device for accomplishing something; a pet scheme or favourite remedy, esp. for bringing about some social or political reform or improvement.

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    Hmm! Sounds like Latin for snake-oil. Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 4:05

The word "fad" is not always pejorative, but if you use it to describe something that others take seriously, then it comes off as insulting.


I would call it a 'Common misconception' or a 'Commonly held misconception'.

Wikipedia has a 'list of common misconceptions' which debunks common misconceptions such as:

-Searing meat does not "seal in" moisture, and in fact may actually cause meat to lose moisture. Generally, the value in searing meat is that it creates a brown crust with a rich flavor via the Maillard reaction.

-Bulls are not enraged by the color red, used in capes by professional matadors. Cattle are dichromats, so red does not stand out as a bright color. It is not the color of the cape, but the perceived threat by the matador that incites it to charge.

-Hair and fingernails do not continue to grow after a person dies. Rather, the skin dries and shrinks away from the bases of hairs and nails, giving the appearance of growth.


How about "damp squib" ? From oxforddictionaries.com

A situation or event which is much less impressive than expected

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    +1 One of my favourite terms. The OED definition is much harsher than OxfordDictionaries.com: something that fails ignominiously to satisfy the expectations aroused by it; an anti-climax, a disappointment.
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 14:59

Some thoughts

Many of these incorrect beliefs result from poor critical thinking or natural cognitive biases. A medical cure that worked for my friend's mother, for example, is an invalid sample size. Confirmation bias is always a factor even when the person consciously tries to avoid it. Our brains are predisposed to see patterns and causation, and we (all of us) regularly misunderstand the true causes of events. Furthermore, our ability to collect information about the universe is extremely limited: our bodies can only detect a very small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, for example, so errors in knowledge will naturally occur.

My nomination



  1. Advertisements
  2. Unproven
  3. Common sense

For rumination and chuckles

  1. Urban myth
  2. Spin
  3. Tall tales

I once caught a fish this big!


Not sure why nobody said this. Is "overrated" the word you are looking for?


'Superficial' may be the word, were a person may have a shallow understanding, or comprehension of a person or products true nature or capability.


The phrase "bait and switch" is used in the context of sales, but can be applied more broadly. It refers to a situation in which either: (1) an item is advertised as being great, but in fact it is no good at all (e.g., the ad states that a gadget will "last a lifetime", but it breaks on the first use); or (2) an item is advertised as for sale on buyer-favorable terms, but either the seller changes the terms at the last minute or there are hidden terms that, in each case, disfavor the buyer (e.g., you respond to an ad to buy a car with "no money down!", but as you go to sign the papers, you notice a large fee -- the salesperson explains that "no money down" refers only to the loan and that you still must pay hefty car dealer origination and handling fees).

IMHO the current vernacular more often uses the general term "scam" instead of this phrase.



Perhaps the term "buyer's regret"?

  • Responses such as this one are more suited to the Comments section of the question. Consider deleting this and reposting accordingly.
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 21:51

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