5 Cases of Confusion Between Things and Their Names

By Mark Nichol

1. “Users can choose from any website that offers RSS feeds, short for ‘Really Simple Syndication.’
“RSS feeds” is not short for “Really Simple Syndication.” The sentence refers to RSS feeds and then explains what the initialism stands for, but the association of the spelled-out term with the initialism is confusing, so the additional information needs to be distinguished from the main point: “Users can choose from any website that offers RSS feeds. (RSS is short for ‘Really Simple Syndication.’)”

More simply, the parenthesis could be introduced as here: “Users can choose from any website that offers RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds.” However, the information is not essential and is better introduced in a trailing parenthesis. Use your judgment according to the context of each case.

2. “This is a camera obscura, a Latin term that means ‘dark chamber.’”
This sentence suffers from the same type of confusion as the previous example. A camera obscura is not a Latin term; it is a device with that Latin name (and though the origin of the name is Latin, the term, despite being taken from that language, is English). Revise the sentence to clarify both points: “This is a camera obscura, a device whose name, borrowed from Latin, means ‘dark chamber.’”

3. “The pre-emptive offer — also a common term in corporate transactions — is hardly new.”
Here, the concept of the pre-emptive offer is being mistaken for the name of the concept. Again, word the interjection of information to clarify the distinction: “The strategy known as a pre-emptive offer — that phrase is also a common term in corporate transactions — is hardly new.”

4. “With his talkie debut, as British secret agent Bulldog Drummond (1929), he became the first silent star to become even bigger in sound films.”
This sentence attempts to name both a character and a film in one designation, but as we all know from physics class, two phenomena cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Separate the reference to the title character from that of the film title: “With his talkie debut, as the titular British secret agent in Bulldog Drummond (1929), he became the first silent star to become even bigger in sound films.”

5. “John is a Wetland Watcher — a moniker he wears with pride and satisfaction.”
This sentence’s conflict of concept and name is not as jarring as in the previous examples, but the statement would nevertheless benefit from more of a separation of the two elements: “John is a Wetland Watcher, and that’s a moniker he bears with pride and satisfaction.”

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16 Responses to “5 Cases of Confusion Between Things and Their Names”

  • Warsaw Will

    In #4 you missed the perfect occasion to use one of my favourite words, and as the opportunity doesn’t come too often, my version would go – “With his talkie debut, as the eponymous British secret agent in Bulldog Drummond (1929), he became the first silent star to become even bigger in sound films.”

  • No_imaginative_nickname

    In example #2, I believe you meant to write, “…suffers from the same type of confusion…” instead of “…suffers from the safe type of confusion…”

  • Susan

    I get your issue with examples #1, #2 and #3 and the wording in #4 is definitely cumbersome; I myself am on board with the previous poster’s use of the word ‘eponymous’.

    As for example #5 I think you’re being somewhat anal retentive — in my opinion there is no confusion to the reader and, depending on the kind of document being drafted, this kind of lax phrasing is acceptable and can even add to the flow and pacing of the finished product.

  • Tom

    Re: the Wetland Watcher
    Does he wear or bear the moniker?

  • Dale A. Wood

    Note Mr. Nichol: “This is a camera obscura, a Latin term that means ‘dark chamber.’”
    This sentence suffers from the safe type of confusion as the previous example.

    The word “safe” is probably a typographical error for “same”.
    Hence, I think that the sentence should state: “This sentence suffers from the same type of confusion as the previous example.

    Confusing the name of something with the real thing is a genuine problem that crops up over and over again in journalism and in other writing, and this was a great topic for you to write one. So many writers have no idea that there is a difference between the name of something an the “Real McCoy” of something, and it extends into the spoken language, too.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Suppose someone said, “Mike went out for a hamburger and ‘A Bucket of Blood’.” Wow, ever eerie, especially if you do not know that there is a movie named “A Bucket of Blood.”

    I live in an area of the United States in which we have two towns named Alabaster and Jasper. An announcer on a local TV station said something about “an Alabaster business”. Well, to most of us, “an alabaster business” is one that buys, sells, and/or manufactures items made out of the mineral alabaster.
    The same problem would arise in speech about a “Jasper business”, because jasper is also a mineral and a semiprecious stone.
    What would be wrong with the announcer’s saying “a business in Alabaster, Alabama”? I can only say that not doing so seems to be sheer mental laziness. I wrote an e-mail to the TV station, too, but I did not get any response.

    Interestingly, halfway between Alabaster and Jasper in Alabama, and in the same metropolitan area, is Irondale, very close to Birmingham. Going somewhat farther afield is Carbon Hill, Alabama. referring to the coal mining in that area.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Tom: To “bear the moniker” of something is very common English where I live – in North America. If things are different where you live, then so be it: “wear your monikers”. In case you haven’t noticed, this column is written by Americans and Canadians.
    D.A.W.

  • Mona Karel

    Words for thought. I’ve found too many people are using pronouns without identifying the noun referred to. Which can be most confusing

  • Dale A. Wood

    I think that the word “eponymous” has become a tired cliche’ already, and I would never use it.
    Please use a theasurus to find some better words and phrases that mean the same thing.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    How about RSS = Rich Site Summary? That is its real and original meaning.

  • Warsaw Will

    @D.A.W. – Good to see you’ve found a new home and a new set of people to annoy. Please do this, please do that. Does it really give you such pleasure to criticise the words other people like? I have my favourites, you have yours. Vive la différence. And it’s good to see you’re as succinct and sparing with your comments as ever. Oh, and we’ll just put theasurus (sic) down to a typo, shall we?

  • Sally

    Well said, Warsaw Will.

    Please remember, D.A.W., ‘Americans’ (don’t you mean “people who live in the US – er, sorry, U.S.”?) and Canadians don’t have a momopoly on the language.

    Your enthnocentrism reminds me of a line from ‘Zulu,’ one of my favourite films (1) – “This is a *Welsh* regiment, boyo, though there are a few foreigners from England in it…”

    I suppose that you are also one who gets upset when you read ‘favourite’ on the ‘Net, rather than ‘favorite’?

    PS: I like ‘eponymous’ too!

    _____________

    (1) “…as full of holes as a screen door and an OTT imperialist wank, but packed with memorable one-liners and with a musical duel as its climax”

  • MadhusudanR

    @D.A.W.: I don’t agree that ‘eponymous’ is cliched. Though my standard of a cliche is any word/phrase that mediocre and gossip journalists overuse, just to get a catchy ring. Anyway, please don’t be affected by my comments. Independent insights help form different aspects of an argument, and your’s is equally contributory.

  • Curtis

    Mark,

    Seems to me that #4 would be perfectly acceptable if you simply take out the first comma. I wouldn’t find that a bit confusing or ambiguous.

  • Mark Nichol

    Curtis:

    That’s true, except that the movie title would have to be unitalicized to convert it to simply the character name, and the context in which the sentence appears concerns titles, not characters.

  • venqax

    Confusing the name of something with the real thing is a genuine problem that crops up over and over again in journalism and in other writing, and this was a great topic for you to write one.

    The word “one” is probably a typographical error for “on”. Hence, I think that the sentence should state: “…and this was a great topic for you to write on.”

    Or, “…and this was a great topic on which for you to write”, which sounds ridiculous and clumsy, but would be demanded by misguided pseudo-pedants (not to be confused with pseudo-fedants, who unclog and decongest things here in the USA).

    @Sally: Please remember, D.A.W., ‘Americans’ (don’t you mean “people who live in the US – er, sorry, U.S.”?) and Canadians don’t have a momopoly on the language.

    I don’t think there was any implication of ethnocentrism or claim of monopoly by DAW; simply a pointing-out that this site is written with emphasis on American English, not other, smaller, less influential dialects (oh, sorry :).) That seems to cause a lot of consternation among some UKers, especially Englanders, over and over and over again on here, even though it’s quite plain and up-front.

    I don’t get upset when I see “favourite” or “centre” on the Net. I simply assume it’s a non-American writer. No big deal. I certainly don’t feel any need to “correct” them. I do, though, wonder why the British wouldn’t simply invent their own Internet to use. The US Dept of DefenSe put a lot of dollars into this. (JUST KIDDING!).

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