What is the definition of a word or phrase that does not describe properly what it is or does? For example a black box flight recorder is not black but orange. Are there any other examples of such words or phrases?

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    You seem to have already provided a definition :) . Are you looking for an idiom as the tag you used indicates, or are you looking for a single-word-request? Or perhaps you're looking for a more rigorous definition. Please edit your question to clarify. Thanks! – Lawrence Aug 1 '16 at 12:11

It's called a misnomer - the name doesn't match the named.

Misnomer noun A wrong or inaccurate name or designation: ‘King crab’ is a misnomer—these creatures are not crustaceans at all - ODO

Here are some examples from wikipedia:

  • Catgut is made from sheep intestines.
  • French horns originated in Germany, not France.
  • The "funny bone" is not a bone—the phrase refers to the ulnar nerve.
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    And if the misnomer is wrong enough, it's an oxymoron, c.f. "dark light", "living dead", "open secret", and "Microsoft Works". – Ketura Aug 1 '16 at 18:02

In general this is called a paradox or contradiction. Your example is actually an outdated term as originally black boxes indeed were black.


A seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true:
the uncertainty principle leads to all sorts of paradoxes, like the particles being in two places at once


A combination of statements, ideas, or features which are opposed to one another:
the proposed new system suffers from a set of internal contradictions


While a modern-day black box is painted bright orange to help investigators find them, early versions were painted black, and the name stuck.

  • These don't fit the asker's example. "Orange" does not contradict "black": colors don't oppose one another because they're arbitrary points on a continuum, not extremes of a polarized range. Nor is a black box paradoxical: the statement "Modern black boxes are actually orange" is completely believable and understandable, not objectively absurd at all. – talrnu Aug 1 '16 at 17:38

I suggest that this is an idiom:

Idioms are a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. Example of idioms are "rain cats and dogs" and "see the light."

There are several lists of idioms on the Internet, including:

It's all there in the tag definition on this very website!


I can think of three examples immediately;

elbow grease

which nothing to do with elbows or grease, but means hard physical work

tennis elbow

which is an inflammation of the elbow area, but not always caused by tennis.

monkey wrench

which is an adjustable wrench, unfortunately has very little to do with monkeys.

Hot Dog

which isn't a dog, it's a sausage.

For a definition, I think I'd go with;

colloquialism - a word or phrase that is not formal or literary and is used in ordinary or familiar conversation

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    Your examples are of things which are, at worst, orthogonal to the intended meaning rather than outright contradictory. "Tennis elbow" may not always be caused by tennis, but it's obviously such a frequent occurrence that it adopted such a name. The other two are metaphors which are at least descriptive. – Ketura Aug 1 '16 at 17:58

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