Myth and Misconception

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Phil Dragonetti writes:

One of the things that bug me about English usage is the use of a”cute” word instead of the proper word. One such “cute” word is “myth”…[which] many use … instead of the word “misunderstanding” or “misconception”

I received this comment while I was writing a post for my teaching site. The headline I’d given my article was “The Myth of Make-up Work.” Phil’s comment challenged me to see if I could come up with something else that would convey the same meaning. I changed it to “No Such Thing as Make-up Work.”

The OED gives two general definitions of myth:

1. A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.
2. A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth. Also: something existing only in myth; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing.

Headline writers are not likely to abandon the use of such a useful word as myth: it’s short, it alliterates with a lot of common words, and it conveys a sense of something that is not true. This use of myth does seem to be applied to just about anything and everything:

10 Big Myths about copyright explained
Ten Myths About Affirmative Action
Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving
The Myth of Mental Illness
The Myth of Alzheimers: What You Aren’t Being Told
James Webb: Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege
All About Digital Photos – The Myth of DPI
Myths about Pregnancy
Myths about Aging
Myths about Alcohol

When Joseph Campbell called his book The Power of Myth, he wasn’t thinking of “untrue or erroneous” beliefs. He was thinking of universal spiritual truths that shape our lives. Maybe it would make sense to lighten up on the use of myth as a synonym for mere “error.”

Here’s a selection of other words and terms that convey the sense of something that is not true, or not completely true:

false notion
half truth

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6 thoughts on “Myth and Misconception”

  1. >>One of the things that bug me about English usage is the use of a”cute” word instead of the proper word.<<

    That makes me a little sad. It sounds like Phil wants to suck all the life and poetry out of English and reduce it to Orwellian Newspeak.

    Bringing hyperbole, metaphor, allusion and, indeed, cuteness into language is what makes it capable of art and literature, rather than just a cold codification.

  2. Great DWT on “myth” !

    I guess what bugs me is when a word that has a particularly powerful meaning gets appropriated into having pedestrian meanings.

    As Joseph Campbell pointed out, myth is a very powerful entity in human history and human thinking. The word “myth” does NOT mean an untruth. Quite to the contrary, myth usually indicates some kind of deep-seated truth about humanity. Such a powerful word, and concept, should not be watered down by misappropriation.

  3. I wonder what makes ApK take a comment about one single word and apply it to ” all the life and poetry” in English???

    It is important to be able to read for comprehension; to be able to read something and understand its range of application and not mistakenly assume that it applies to all types of writing—such as poetry.

    When writing poetry—poetic license is allowed. But when writing to communicate, it is important to allow a word to retain its meaning—otherwise words lose their meaning and their power.

    In the case of the word “myth” i suspect that people get lazy and settle for the shortest word—not caring that that they are usng the wrong word.

    When reading, it is important to read for comprehension to avoid misinterpreting what the writer has actually written, and then perhaps the reader won’t be so “sad”.

  4. >>I wonder what makes ApK take a comment about one single word and apply it to ” all the life and poetry” in English???<<

    You said:

    "One of the things that bug me about English usage is the use of a”cute” word instead of the proper word."

    'Myth' was, apparently, just one example you used.
    I commented on what you said, as I quoted, not just one word.

    Anyway, regarding 'myth' specifically, Joseph Campbell notwithstanding, a "myth" IS nominally untrue, regardless of how strongly it is believed — that's what makes it distinct from science, and that is quite often precisely what users of the word mean to convey: A belief in an untruth, whether or not it actually reaches "mythic proportions."

    On the other hand, sometimes it's just misused.


  5. Thanks for writing this, I would love for people to stop using the word Myth when they mean misconception.

    ApK — Myth isn’t “true or false”, Myth is metaphor for deeper patterns and truths about the human experience. People mistakenly don’t understand what a metaphor is, and argue over the truth / falseness of Myth’s, but they aren’t within the realm of true & false, they are metaphor, which is much different than misconception.

    This article could be called “The Myth Myth.” 😉

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