Mental Floss

28 Misleading Misnomers Explained

Paul Anthony Jones
iStock / iStock

A light-year is the distance traveled by light in a single year—5,878,499,810,000 miles, or 9,460,528,400,000 kilometers. So, despite how it sounds, when we talk about things being “light-years away” we’re not talking about an enormously vast amount of time but rather an enormously vast distance. The stories behind 28 more misleadingly misnomers are explained here.

1. Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. It was invented in Germany in 1892; the name was changed to make the game more marketable in 1928.

2. Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5...) originated in India, not the Arabian Peninsula. They’re named for the Arabian mathematicians who introduced them to Europe in the Middle Ages.

3. And while we’re on the subject of math, the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the previous two (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21...), was first discussed by Indian scholars several centuries years before Fibonacci.

4.  The Babylonians had an understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem more than 1000 years before Pythagoras.

5. Koala bears are marsupials, not bears, and king crabs aren’t crabs. They’re one of the many animals that are referred to as “false crabs,” along with the closely-related hermit crabs.

6. Glow-worms and fireflies aren’t worms or flies, but insect larvae and beetles, respectively.

7. The European Union isn’t exclusively European—it actually spans 5 continents. According to the UN, Cyprus is in Asia; Spain has two enclaves in Africa; and France has regions in both North and South America.

8. The horned toad and the slow worm are both species of lizard.

9. Starfish and jellyfish aren’t fish—they are echinoderms and cnidarians, respectively.

10. And despite looking like fashionable ants, velvet ants are actually wasps.

11. Strawberries aren’t berries. And neither are blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries. By definition, berries have to be produced from a single ovary, like a redcurrant or a grape. And, for that matter, is a banana. Confused? Well…

12. Peanuts aren’t nuts, but they are related to peas. Coconuts, walnuts, and pistachios aren’t nuts either, but rather “drupes”—like dates, coffee beans, and olives—which are fleshy fruits surrounding a hard shell containing a seed. Hazelnuts and chestnuts, however, are true nuts, as are acorns.

13. Panama hats come from Ecuador.

14. English horns come from Poland. And they aren’t horns, but woodwind instruments related to the oboe.

15. Jerusalem artichokes come from North America. The “Jerusalem” part might be a corruption of the Italian word for “sunflower,” girasole.

16. French fries are (probably) from Belgium.

17. Bombay duck is a fish.

18. Two-toed sloths should be referred to as two-fingered sloths. Their front "hands" have 2 fingers on each, while their back "feet" have 3 toes.

19. Paris’s Pont Neuf is the oldest bridge in the city, but its name still means “new bridge.” It was completed in 1607.

20. The Isle of Dogs in central London isn’t an island, but rather a peninsula-like loop of land surrounded on three sides by the river Thames.

21. Catgut is made from sheep gut, and has never come from cats. The “cat” part is mysterious, but it might come from a corruption of “kit,” an old dialect word for a fiddle.

22. When you hit your funny bone, you’re actually hitting your ulnar nerve.

23. The Battle of Bunker Hill mainly took place on nearby Breed’s Hill in Boston.

24. There are 1864 islands in the Thousand Islands archipelago.

25. Napoleon’s Hundred Days—the period between his return from exile on March 20, 1815 to the restoration of the French monarchy on July 8—lasted 111 days.

26. The Thousand Days’ War lasted 1130 days.

27.  The Thirty Days War was part of a series of larger skirmishes that lasted 304 days...

28. ...and The Hundred Years’ War lasted 116 years. (But the Eighty Years’ War did last eighty years.)