I'm trying to find an idiom with knowingly misleading words. For example, consider guinea pig: this animal definitely is not a pig, and its origin is not Guinea. Both words are misleading. In Russian it is called not "guinea pig" but a "sea pig" (if translate the name to English literally), and again: both words are misleading, and that has become some sort of an idiom of giving wrong names to entities. In English however, as an idiom "guinea pig" means somewhat different (a subject to an experiment), so I wish to find an English way to express the nonsense of giving misleading names.

Update: I don't need the name of this term. I have a practical purpose of using an idiom where it is clear to a native speaker that each word it consist of is a misnomer.

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    Seeing as @user405662 has suggested "misnomer" and based on your comment to that answer, could you clarify - are you looking for an example of a deliberate misnomer? (Rather than the word 'misnomer' itself)
    – komodosp
    Apr 26 at 10:19
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    @komodosp, I'm looking for an example of a misnomer that native speakers would understand. For example, if I would say (in Russian) "guinea pig", Russian speakers most likely would understand that I mean the idiom where both words are misleading. I'm looking something similar in English Apr 26 at 12:55
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    This may be tricky, because most people don't really think about the constituents of idioms. By definition an idiom means something different from the literal words.
    – Barmar
    Apr 26 at 14:15
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    There are probably lots of animal names that fit. A prairie dog isn't a dog, although I assume it is found on prairies.
    – Barmar
    Apr 26 at 14:17
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    But English speakers understand guinea pig, whether it's the animal or the metaphorical use meaning a test subject. Why won't this do as your example? Apr 26 at 14:27

6 Answers 6


Could you be looking for misnomer?

Collins Dictionary gives:

If you say that a word or name is a misnomer, you mean that it describes something incorrectly.

Herbal 'tea' is something of a misnomer because these drinks contain no tea at all.

However, I doubt misnomers are intended to be deliberately misleading; the names just stick for various reasons.

This is different from misinformation where the information provided is deliberately misleading.

Again, Collins gives:

Misinformation is wrong information which is given to someone, often in a deliberate attempt to make them believe something which is not true.

  • 1
    Yes, I'm looking for a misnomer that is famous for being a misnomer, so being used without additional explanations it would express this idea, not the original meaning. Herbal tea doesn't fall into that category. Apr 26 at 6:46
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    Voltaire famously said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, and I've heard other misnomers described as being named 'on the Holy Roman Empire principle'. Apr 26 at 8:12
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    The OP isn't looking for a term for this phenomenon, they want a good example of it.
    – Barmar
    Apr 26 at 14:14
  • @Barmar, as far as I can tell, they want an idiom that simultaneously describes the phenomenon, and exemplifies it.
    – The Photon
    Apr 26 at 18:59

There's a whole class of terms, insults really, which consist of a nationality or city combined with a noun or verb. Since the British were rivals of the Dutch in the empire game, there are a number which target that nationality. For example, Dutch Treat (not a treat at all, you pay for your own meal) and Dutch Courage (alcohol, so not really courage). We also have French Letter (a condom), Welsh rabbit (not rabbit, or even meat, and perhaps not Welsh).

The term "Sweetbreads" (pituitary and thymus glands) is misleading to modern English speakers (not bread, and only somewhat sweet), but the name is very old and perhaps not deliberately misleading.

I'm not sure there is a clear-cut example that most English speakers would instantly recognize as exactly fitting your description. For example, I'm aware of Kate Bunting's example, but the quote attributed to Voltaire doesn't spring to mind instantly upon reading "Holy Roman Empire".

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    "welsh rabbit" is a mis-hearing/mis-saying - the actual dish is 'Welsh rarebit' - more commonly known as - 'Cheese on toast'.
    – Charemer
    Apr 27 at 9:44
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    @Charemer: Not according to Wikipedia: 'Rabbit and rarebit: The word rarebit is a corruption of rabbit, "Welsh rabbit" being first recorded in 1725, and "rarebit" in 1781.' Endorsements from Brander Matthews (1892) (' ... few [writers] are as ignorant and dense as the unknown unfortunate who first tortured the obviously jocular Welsh rabbit into a pedantic and impossible Welsh rarebit ...), Sivert N. Hagen , Ambrose Bierce (1911) & H.W. Fowler. May 8 at 10:24

You could call it a "parkway/driveway situation".

This references the question "Why do we park on the driveway and drive on the parkway?" I've seen this attributed to several comedians, most plausibly to George Carlin.

This isn't an idiom, as I've never heard anyone else use the phrase "parkway/driveway situation", but it does reference a well-known idiom (the musing of the comedian).

  • That expression seems to be specific to North America, as ‘parkway’ isn't used that way elsewhere. (In British English, it usually refers to a railway station with extensive parking/park-and-ride facilities.)
    – gidds
    Apr 26 at 21:52

Perhaps these wouldn't be readily recognised as misnomers, because they are so common, but consider:

  • A butterfly -- not a fly, and isn't made of or produces butter.
  • A jellyfish -- not a fish at all, and isn't made of jelly.
  • An English horn is a woodwind instrument originating from Silesia (currently in Poland).
  • A Jerusalem artichoke -- a kind of sunflower native to North America (and you eat the roots, not flower buds).
  • The childish spoonerism "Flutterby" is more apt than the real name, but at leats butterflies fly. And a jellyfish has a jelly-like consistency and swims in the sea as do fish; shellfish aren't fish either.
    – Chris H
    Apr 27 at 8:30

Maybe a modest proposal? In idiomatic usage, describing something as a "modest proposal" can generally be taken to mean that it's a ridiculous joke or an unreasonable demand made in bad faith. It takes its name from Jonathan Swift's satirical essay proposing cannibalism as a solution to Irish poverty. From Britannica:

The essay is a masterpiece of satire, with a blend of rational deliberation and unthinkable conclusion, and its title has come to symbolize any proposition to solve a problem with an effective but outrageous cure.

That said, it's not a totally ubiquitous idiom. Someone unfamiliar with the satirical origin of the phrase may read it at face value instead of with the intentionally deprecating intent.


I believe the best term for this is a "Red Herring".

A Red Herring is something that distracts from the real meaning/ real issue. For example, sometimes in a mystery novel the author might add some seemingly innocuous detail that grabs the reader's attention. This might distract them from deducing the real facts of the case.

In the case of naming/labelling a Red Herring would be a label given with the purpose of diverting from an item's actual usage or origin.

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