Mental Floss

34 Misleading Misnomers Explained

Paul Anthony Jones
Koalas might be cute, but they're definitely not bears.
Koalas might be cute, but they're definitely not bears. / ImagePatch/Moment/Getty Images (koala), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)

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 34 more misleadingly misnomers are explained here.

1. Chinese Checkers

This game 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 the late 1920s.

2. Arabic Numerals

Arabic numbers (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. The Fibonacci Sequence

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 Pythagorean Theorem

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

5. and 6. Koala Bears and King Crabs

New Koala Joey On Display At Taronga Zoo
A Koala joey at Taronga Zoo. / Lisa Maree Williams/GettyImages

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.

7. and 8. Glowworms and Fireflies

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

9. and 10. Horned Toads and Slow Worms

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

11. and 12. Starfish and Jellyfish

Divers discover underwater world in Turkey's Aydin
A starfish near Turkey. / Anadolu Agency/GettyImages

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

13. Velvet Ants

Despite looking like fashionable ants, velvet ants are actually wasps.

14., 15., 16., and 17. Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries, and Blackberries

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 ... or a banana. Confused? Well…

18., 19., and 20. Peanuts, Coconuts, and Walnuts

Peanuts aren’t nuts, but they are related to peas. Coconuts and walnuts 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.

21. Panama Hats

Teddy Roosevelt in Construction Vehicle
Theodore Roosevelt in a construction vehicle at the Panama Canal. / George Rinhart/GettyImages

Panama hats come from Ecuador. The term Panama hat was in use as early as the 1830s, but the term—and the hats themselves—grew in popularity after then-President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal construction site wearing one in 1906.

22. English Horns

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

23. Jerusalem Artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes come from North America. The “Jerusalem” part of the name might be a corruption of the Italian word for “sunflower,” girasole—because the Jerusalem artichoke isn’t an artichoke at all, but a member of the sunflower family.

24. Bombay Duck

Bombay duck is actually a fish. According to the BBC, there are a few theories as to how the fish got its moniker, the most popular of which is that “that the name came from the British mail trains that huffed odoriferous orders of dried fish from the city to the interior of India. These wagonloads became known as ‘Bombay Dak.’ (The word dak means ‘mail.’)”

25. Pont Neuf Bridge

Pont Neuf: Plate One From The Paris Set', 1904.
Pont Neuf: Plate One From The Paris Set', 1904. / Print Collector/GettyImages

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

26. The Isle of Dogs

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.

27. Catgut

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

28. Funny Bone

When you hit your funny bone, you’re actually hitting your ulnar nerve. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name funny bone is “probably at least partly punning on the homophones humerus”—the upper bone of the arm—“and humorous.”

29. The Battle of Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill
The Battle of Bunker Hill. / Fine Art/GettyImages

This Revolutionary War battle mainly took place on nearby Breed’s Hill in Boston.

30. Thousand Islands

There are more than 1500 islands in North America’s Thousand Islands archipelago.

31. Napoleon’s Hundred Days

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.

32. The Thousand Days’ War

The Thousand Days’ War (also known as The War of a Thousand Days) lasted 1130 days.

33.  The Thirty Days’ War

The Thirty Days War—a.k.a. the Greco-Turkish War—was part of a series of larger skirmishes that lasted 304 days.

34. The Hundred Years’ War

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

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.