Examples of sayings or idioms based on a misunderstanding?
February 4, 2013 7:20 AM   Subscribe

When Bugs Bunny referred to Elmer Fudd as a "nimrod", he was sarcastically comparing the dim-witted Fudd to a biblical king who was known as a mighty hunter. However, the intended sarcasm of that reference seemed lost on the public, and over time, "nimrod" has come to be used to simply mean dull or dim-witted. Can you point me to other examples of sayings or idioms created via a misunderstood reference or saying?
posted by tocts to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You sometimes hear references to "Romeo" as a kind of ladies' man figure, not what he was in Shakespeare. E.g. "Flo, she don't know... that the boy she loves is a Romeo..."
posted by BibiRose at 7:27 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I took ancient Greek, I was taught that the word "barbarian" derived from the Greek verb "barbarizein" (transliterated, obvs), an onomatopoeic representation of a non-Greek's speech (i.e., to the ancient Greeks, it sounded like "barbarbarbarbarbar mumble mumble oof"). Wikipedia suggests there's some dispute over the etymology, but that's what I was taught.

Now, of course, we take it to mean savages, but it's really just anyone who didn't speak ancient Greek.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:33 AM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Built like a brick shithouse.

An interesting euphemism which has changed meanings over time is homely, which used to mean the sort of thing you would find in a home, familiar maybe cozy.
posted by shothotbot at 7:37 AM on February 4, 2013

I don't know if this quite fits, but I constantly notice folks saying, "I could care less" when what they really mean is, "I couldn't care less", unless they're being sarcastic.

Also, I had heard the same story about "barbarian", that the Greeks thought the German language at the time sounded like "BAR BAR BAR BAR"...but they also absolutely thought of the Germans as what we consider to be barbarians. (insert GERMAN-IST comment here)
posted by availablelight at 7:38 AM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's also "Samaritans" who historically were sort of enemies of the Judeans. Thus the idea of a "Good Samaritan" is a bit of an ironic tale.

Nowadays, you have organizations like The Samaritans which, dropping the "Good", now mean the reverse of what they once did.
posted by vacapinta at 7:42 AM on February 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I can't prove this, but I think the term "damn straight" is like this. I first saw it in a Doonesbury cartoon; it was the punch line. Class reunion, and one old guy ends up clasping another guy around the shoulder and saying, "Why you old hippy, you!" and the other guy mutters "Damn straight!"

I always took that line to mean "straight" as opposed to "hippy", but others seem to have interpreted it to mean "yup!" and after that I started hearing people using "damn straight" to mean "emphatic yes".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:51 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Speaking of Romeo...Most of the jokes about, or references to, the line "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" are based on a failure to understand that "Wherefore" means why, not where.

If there are characters in a show or movie performing the play - for a school performance, usually - whoever's playing Juliet will almost always deliver the emphasis as, "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" when it should really be, "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" But it's kind of lodged in our culture as the former.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:02 AM on February 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

There's also the realm of the "mondegreens," misheard phrases, which leads to the interesting article on folk etymologies on Wikipedia.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:07 AM on February 4, 2013

Goths take the name for their subculture from the term for dark romantic fantasy novels of the 18th and 19th century, which was closely associated with the neo-Gothic revival in architecture. The dramatic and ornate Gothic art and architecture that happened from the 13th to 16th centuries was called that because "Gothic" at that time meant "barbaric" and lesser than the Classical style, in part because because the original Goths sacked Rome in 410.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:11 AM on February 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Spitting image" is a less-clear variation on "spitten image" or "spit and image", the idea being that person 2 is so identical to person 1 as to have been spitten out by them.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:14 AM on February 4, 2013

Just FYI, there are a ton of false etymologies being traded here, including the explanation of "nimrod" in the original question. The question makes it seem as though Bugs Bunny were responsible for the "nimrod" = "idiot" usage (OED 3. "N. Amer. slang. A stupid or contemptible person; an idiot"), but that usage clearly predates Bugs's existence by at least several years, since it's documented in the early '30s.

I suspect the kind of neat little story of misunderstanding or reversed meaning that you're asking for is far more common in the realm of folk etymology than actual usage, because it provides such an appealing feeling of being in the right when told.
posted by RogerB at 8:36 AM on February 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Re "damn straight": I believe that straight as in "true", e.g. "are you being straight with me?" predates "straight" as an opposite of "hippy" by a couple of hundred of years or so.
posted by she's not there at 9:29 AM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

The "low man on the totem pole" is understood to refer to the person with the least power/importance. In actual Totem Poles the hierarchy is not quite as clear or standardised and the lowest position is not always the "weakest" (or always strongest, as some people who think the saying is wrong without realising the complexity of Totem Pole representations in different situations and different Nations).
posted by saucysault at 9:44 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seems that "beg the question" has come to mean "raise the question", despite the fact that the misuse this phrase grates on the last nerve of a not insignificant proportion of speakers of English.
posted by she's not there at 9:46 AM on February 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Kosher salt" is a bit of a misnomer. It's not so much that salt itself would ordinarily be non-kosher, but rather that the finer grains of so-called kosher salt more readily absorb blood, which is traif.

Regarding the phrase "eat like a bird," let us take the wise words of Norman Bates: "Anyway, I hear the expression 'eats like a bird' - it-it's really a fals-fals-fals-falsity. Because birds really eat a tremendous lot."
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:17 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Regarding the story of Adam and Eve, people refer to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as having been an apple, even though it almost certainly was not an apple.

In US Supreme Court jurisprudence, some people assume that originalism is an old system of jurisprudence, perhaps even the default one, but it's actually a relatively recent creation.

People often misunderstand the legal fiction of "corporate personhood" to mean something other than what it means. This leads to a lot of misplace energy, where people attack a straw man of corporate personhood, in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to right social wrongs.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:27 AM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

The popular concept of King Canute is based on a misunderstanding.
posted by wilko at 10:57 AM on February 4, 2013

hoi polloi is often wrongly assumed to mean the rich or the high and mighty. In fact, it means just the opposite, as it comes from the Greek meaning the many
posted by TheRaven at 12:06 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

'Tripping the light fantastic' has got detached from its origin in Milton's L'Allegro ('Come, and trip it, as you go / On the light fantastick toe'), and now quite often carries connotations of an acid trip or similar (Urban Dictionary: We all popped E's and began to trip the light fantastic), or gets shortened to 'the light fantastic'. Linguists regard this as a paradigm case of an ill-formed idiom (like 'kingdom come') that doesn't obey standard grammatical rules.

A similar process seems to be taking place with 'light out for the territory', from the end of Huckleberry Finn ('I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest'). Iain Sinclair used it punningly for the title of his volume of essays, Lights Out for the Territory: Excursions in the Secret History of London (1997), and since then I've occasionally seen it used to mean 'the end' ('well, I guess that's lights out for the territory, then') by people who clearly have no idea where it comes from.
posted by verstegan at 12:30 PM on February 4, 2013

posted by Smallpox at 1:13 PM on February 4, 2013

Napoleon wasn't actually short, especially for the time he lived in, so phrases alluding to that are all based on a misconception.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:21 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might look up eggcorns (see also). But most of these are still clearly mistakes, and haven't evolved into "correct" common idioms, as you want.
posted by painquale at 5:38 PM on February 4, 2013

Let them eat cake.
posted by mochapickle at 6:36 PM on February 4, 2013

I often hear people say that a person "has the Midas touch." They mean that this person makes money without effort and always seems to come out ahead. This bothers me because Midas suffered horribly due to his Midas touch. He almost starved to death because all the food he tried to eat turned to gold. He also turned his daughter into gold by accident. He begged the gods to reverse his Midas touch and, after they did, he ended up swearing off riches and became a bum. Yeah, bums! The moral is be careful what you wish for. Or maybe it's about not wanting too much. Oh, fuck it, anyway, people get it wrong.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:51 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is often thought to be about LSD. John Lennon maintained that it was based on a drawing his son had done at school of his friend, Lucy, in a sky, with diamonds.
posted by tamitang at 8:29 PM on February 5, 2013

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