Submitted by Mr. Blues on January 20, 2013

misnomer

My evening of horror transpired as follows:

While sharing a bottle of wine with my girlfriend I was stupid enough to posit why it was that I had taken such a huge interest in blues music. 

“Why, because it’s accessible to your mediocre guitar skills,” she said, “and when your skills improve you switch to real music, like classical guitar”.

“Well then, I hope, once your skills improve in belly dance you’ll switch to real dance,”  I responded, “besides it is a misnomer that blues is ‘simple music’!”

Now,  my meaning here was that blues music has been historically labeled and designated as “simple music” in order to mislead people into thinking that African-Americans, from whom the music generated, are not capable of anything complex and so somebody will say, “I love blacks because they play ‘simple music’!”

My girlfriend claims English superiority because she went to college and has been told she has a greater grasp on the language than it’s inventors, so she informed me that I had incorrectly used the word “misnomer”. According to her, what I should have said was that ‘simple music’ was a ‘misconception’ and not a ‘misnomer’. I can see the angle she is coming from and, in all honesty, I barely graduated high school, but I am sure that in this instance I am correct. My point was that blues was “misnamed” or “mislabeled” in order to mislead and not if it is actually simple music (I obviously believe that it is not and I am improving at guitar, so hopefully one day I will be able to tell).

In any case, I am currently sleeping on the couch. Is she correct or is it my “belly dance isn’t real dance” that has me on the couch?

Please help me.

Mr. On the Couch Blues

I beg you not to yell at me about any grammar mistake I may have just made. I finished the bottle of wine by myself and I really just want to be right about this one thing.

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@Aurie - And indeed the French were somewhat nonplussed at all the fuss over French Fries / Liberty Fries after their 2003 veto, as they also considered 'frites' to be a Belgian concoction. In the last couple of years here in Poland, Belgian 'frites' have become all the rage.

http://www.visitbelgium.com/?page=frites

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@John Everyman - How about Greenland? It's anything but verdant, even though it was purposely named that to interest potential settlers. Or the fact that, despite all our sixth-grade science classes, we still call meteors "shooting stars" when we see them streak through the sky?

Other misnomers occur when a word's definition goes out of vogue, e.g. French fries. The original phrase "French fried" referred to a method of deep-frying, not the literal country in Europe. French fries may be a *misnomer*, as Belgium continues to lay claim to their invention; and if that's true, it's a *misconception* that they're actually French in origin.

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Despite "oxford.com" or whatever... I'm pretty sure King Crab is a crustacean. Seems to me there are way better examples of a misnomer. Can anyone show me different?

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Well, It sound like you are both right regarding grammar and word meaning, but your girlfriend is definately WRONG in regard to music. You can point out to her that there are works of genious in all genres of music---Bob Dylan vs. Brahms=comparing apples and oranges. And virtuosity exists regardless of musical genre; Jimi Hendrix and Mozart are BOTH legit virtuosos.

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I would say it's a matter of intent. It was your comment, so what was your true intent? Did you mean that people often think that blues is simple music (describing the music as simple)? Or did you mean that people often "label" blues music as "simple music"? I would say that your actual comment was ambiguous enough that only you know your true intent. Whether you were correct or not is completely up to you. Of course, we both know that you were wrong and it should be misconception. Why? Because that will you get you off the couch, yes?

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@EW Thornton - Sorry, but I beg to disagree. Mr Blues specifically referred to people "labelling and designating" Blues music as simple (presumably as opposed to complex). Now if this is true, and I'm sure Mr Blues knows what he's talking about, then to my mind that has at least as much to to do with categorising and naming as with describing, if not more so.

From Oxford Dictionaries Online -
label (verb) - assign to a category, especially inaccurately or restrictively:
"many pupils felt that they were labelled as failures"
"the critics labelled him a loser"

From American Heritage Dictionaries via The Free Dictionary
designate - 2. To give a name or title to; characterize.

I have absolutely no problem with misconception, but I don't see things in quite such black and white terms as you do, and I feel that very often we have a choice, perhaps depending on the particular nuance we want to give something. And I think this is one of those cases.

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I believe that this issue my have been the deciding factor in the U.S. Presidential election. In the second debate Obama refered to his usage of the term "Acts of Terror" but Romney had argued that this term was not the same as "Terroist Acts". It was debated for weeks in the media.

Obama is back in office (I'm back in bed). I'll take it.

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Using "the" again depends on context. "Blues" and "the blues" mean the same thing. But while "simple music" is a vague description, "the simple music" tells you that the speaker has a category of genres in his mind. For your dad, that category includes blues.

"Play me the simple music" (meaning blues) - the speaker is actually renaming the genre, so it's a misnomer.

"I listen to simple music, such as blues" - the speaker is just describing the style, so it's a misconception.

To you or me as musicians, blues isn't simple at all. But to a non-playing listener, those styles generate a "simpler", more laid-back reaction than rap or symphony. That's why people persist in calling it simple - they're describing their reaction, not the genre.

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Would using "the" clear this all up?

My father, who is a jazz musician, once said, "I was never interest in playing the simple stuff.". Given the context it was obvious he was talking about blues music, so this would clearly be a term, correct?

If somebody said, "Why don't you boys go ahead and play some of the simple music now.", then wouldn't it also clearly be a term in this instance? if so, then a misnomer?

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Aurie has the right of it.

Warsaw Will, stating that blues music is “simple” (or any other synonym) is neither “labeling” nor “designating” the term; it is simply “describing” it. Therefore, the statement is (depending on opinion) a misconception and not a misnomer.

No one in Mr. Blues’s original post was ascribing a name to blues music, whether appropriately or inappropriately. I do not wish to seem condescending, but we must use words to describe concepts, and such descriptions do not necessarily label or affix a name to something.

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Yes, it is pretty generic (as I said, it's not a completely accurate substitution). You probably wouldn't say "I like African-inspired music" when you mean blues unless you're speaking to someone who's never heard of blues. But you definitely wouldn't say "simple" because it's probably not going to conjure up a genre set in your listener's mind at all.

This is where grammar's lines sort of fizzle and make way for semantics. No single person decides what's specific enough; you get to decide it for yourself, based on your conversation's context and on how well your listener will understand your meaning. It's the usage, not the words themselves, that categorize something as descriptive, nominative, or useless to your meaning.

Ha, and "Running Deer" is a lousy name for a fat kid playing video games, too, but it happens. It's a misnomer, but who's thinking of grammar when they name their children?

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Sure, but if my name was "Bob" and when I tried to swim I just sank like a rock, then it would be a misnomer, right?!

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Aurie, your example of "African-inspired music" could be seen as way more generic than mine (could apply to Rock, Blues, R & B, Traditional, Afro-Cuban, Jazz, hip hop, etc). What gives and who decides what is specific enough? My friend "Slim" is deffinately not the only person who is slim? Is it a matter of capitalization (I can do that)?

Thanks, again for your help.

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Chuckles - that's just called a nice lady! "Misnomer" conveys the idea of a mistake, though, not a term of endearment. If your name was Bob and she kept forgetting and calling you Bill instead, that would be a misnomer.

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As an example:

When I was younger, I would go into eat at my favorite restaurant and the waitress would greet me by saying, “Hello, Handsome!” In this instance she was using “Handsome” as a name, although, I would say that it would have been less of a misnomer then.

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Mr Blues, a description becomes a word when it could feasibly take the place of a word, whether or not it's an accurate substitution. "I like simple music" and "I like blues" don't convey remotely similar meanings, because one is a generic description (could apply to nursery rhymes, ballads, humming, even?) and one is a pretty clear noun. "I like African-inspired music", while not a perfectly accurate substitution, in theory could be swapped for "blues", so it's a description that can pass for a term.

To say that blues is "simple music" is a misconception, while, say, "rap" is certainly a misnomer for blues.

Hope that helps!

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Thank you both for your thoughts on this.

My question isn’t about her use on the term “simple music”, it is about mine (we had already been drinking wine, so I’m not even sure she did use it). The question I have now is: when does a description become a term or name?

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I still think No 2 at Oxford and 2b at the American Heritage Dictionary cover it - Mr Blues says explicitly that other people have labelled or designated (i.e. named) Blues as 'simple' music, a name that has been "inaccurately" or "unsuitably" applied. So I think it's fair for Mr Blues to call it a misnomer. Which is not to say it's not also a misconception. I think something can be both a misconception and a misnomer, it just depends on the which way you look at it. They can both be right.

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Well said, WW, but focusing on the spirit of the argument indicates to me that the girlfriend is right in this instance. The modifier of choice in this dispute is irrelevant, as long as it's erroneously pejorative (the little lady in question ought to put down the zills, pick up a six-string, and try to play the blues just once to see how simple it is). Whether she'd called it "simple music" or "remedial music", she'd still be guilty of a "misconception" not a "misnomer", simply because an opinion thus expressed is describing the type of music rather than misnaming it. Referring to blues as "bluegrass", though not as stellar an example as "king crab", would be a misnomer. Sorry, Mr. Blues. I hope the wine was good, and if it's any consolation, English aside, you were spot-on in your defense of blues music.

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This is the definition of 'misnomer' at Oxford Online Dictionaries:
1. a wrong or inaccurate name or designation - ‘King crab’ is a misnomer—these creatures are not crustaceans at all
2. a wrong or inaccurate use of a name or term - to call this ‘neighbourhood policing’ would be a misnomer" -

No 2 sounds pretty like your example to me.

The American Heritage Dictionary (via The Free Dictionary) lists:
1. An error in naming a person or place.
2.a. Application of a wrong name.
b. A name wrongly or unsuitably applied to a person or an object.

And I would have though 2b here covers it.

Here are some more example sentences. Macmillan:
- Cottage is perhaps a misnomer for such a large house.
- 'Lucky' seemed a bit of misnomer for the unfortunate little dog.

Merriam-Webster:
- “International Airport” is something of a misnomer, since almost all the arriving and departing flights are local.

Actually I think you're both right. You didn't actually say what your girlfriend thought misnomer meant, but I imagine she was probably thinking of the first meaning in the Oxford and American Heritage dictionaries, but that's not its only meaning. And it can certainly also be said that it is a misconception that blues music is 'simple music'; just that you're thinking of the words themselves while she's thinking more about the idea. Time to kiss and make up, methinks.

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