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One meaning of word “myth” is something that is a

widely held but false belief or idea
Source: Google, “define myth”

By this definition, then, a “false myth” is something that it is not a “true myth”, that is, it denies the definition of a “myth”. As I see it, it can either be that it is not a “myth” because it is not widely believed, or because it is not false. However, I've seen a lot of times the phrase “false myth” used to emphasize the falseness of the myth. Is this a genuine usage?

  • Myth can be either false, or unconfirmed. It may be a folk story based on real events for which there's no scientific confirmation available. – SF. Mar 24 '14 at 12:13
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The phrase "false myth" is ambiguous because "false" can mean both "untrue" and "not genuine/real".

By this definition, then, a "false myth" is something that it is not a "true myth", that is, it denies the definition of a "myth". As I see it, it can either be that it is not a "myth" because it is not widely believed, or because it is not false.

This meaning makes sense, but it is probably rarely used.

I've seen a lot of times the phrase "false myth" used to emphasize the falseness of the myth.

This makes slightly less sense. I don't like it. Because "myth" implies false, my initial interpretation is to assume that "false" in front of it must mean something different.

Because of the ambiguity, the phrase appears to be an auto-antonym, a word (or in this case, a phrase) that is its own opposite, and can only be understood by context. It should be avoided. Instead of "X is a false myth", say what you mean:

X is popularly believed to be a myth, but it is not.

Or for the emphasis meaning:

X is a ridiculous/ludicrous/wild myth.

For the first meaning, you can also use "faux myth". The word "faux" can only mean "not real", so is not ambiguous.

  • +1 for the providing sensible options both for emphasizing or negating the meaning of myth. I wasn't aware of the word "faux". – Alejandro Piad Feb 17 '14 at 17:14
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I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for myth and false myth. Here's what I found:

  myth           7786 results
  false myth     2 results

So less than one in a thousand occurrences of myth is accompanied by the word false. It's not exactly a common collocation! And although this is just my personal opinion, the phrase sounds a bit odd to me—possibly because I take myths to be false by definition. I wouldn't recommend that you use it.

That said, we can look at actual usage and see how people use the phrase. Both of the results in COCA appear to agree with your assessment—it's "used to emphasize the falseness of the myth". And that meets with my expectations: I think myths are false by definition, so any myth is a false myth.

You could, however, use "false myth" the way you want to. There's nothing stopping you from doing so—after all, the term isn't a well-established one, so it doesn't have an agreed-upon meaning. But if you do so, make sure you define your terms clearly! Your readers may not be able to guess what you mean unless you do.

  • Thanks. I understand that it might be odd to use it for emphasis, as indeed a myth is already false by definition. But what about the other way around: using the phrase "false myth" to denote a truth that was believed to be a myth? – Alejandro Piad Feb 12 '14 at 18:43
  • As I said, I think you can use it that way, but you'll need to explain what you mean by the term or you're likely to cause confusion. – snailcar Feb 12 '14 at 22:17
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Your instincts are correct. The word “myth” is already understood to indicate disbelief on the part of the speaker. The problem is that myths are generally believed by somebody in the past or present, so the word will sometimes pop up in relation to hotly contested subjects where somebody writing or speaking is attempting to make a point more strongly.

It might in some cases serve a legitimate purpose in its context. If one was discussing truth, for instance, it might make sense to refer to something as a “false myth” to set it in strong contrast to an example of objective truth (not meaning to suggest a contrast with a “true myth” which is a contradiction of terms).

I think this neo-platonist put it best, way back in the fourth century:

“A myth is something that never happened but is always true.”
— Sallustius

  • A true myth is one that was generally believed by somebody in the past or present. The others are just... fables? :^) – J.R. Feb 12 '14 at 19:53
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The meaning you've stated is the second meaning. The primary meaning of "myth" is "A traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events."

I'll admit that pop culture definitely uses "myth" as a synonym for "misconception", but "false myth" is not redundant in educated speech. (Of course, that's how a languages changes and adapts, and what was once casual or uneducated usage becomes the norm, but at least according to most dictionaries, we're not there yet.)

We can even appeal to pop culture and argue that the "Myth Busters" (TV show) doesn't disprove every "myth" they examine.

  • So, for these myths that are not disproved, can we call them "false myths", in the sense that they are not necessarily false? – Alejandro Piad Feb 14 '14 at 18:11
  • I'd use "false myth" to indicate a myth that was false, which is my point of disagreement with the OP and other posters here. Of course, if you understand "myth" to mean "misconception" or "false", "false myth" would indicate something that isn't a myth after all. – Wayne Feb 14 '14 at 21:54
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Myth is a popular belief that can contain false characters, stories, or incorrect facts, but it can bear true characters, stories and correct facts, too. This is why myths deserve proper analyses in order to find what is true and what is not.

Read the whole (short) review on my web site about the definition of myth.

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