The item on the menu was a fresh fruit salad. The item on the plate was not. By the time the peaches, pineapples, grapes and maraschino cherry arrived at my table they had spent months wallowing over their combined misfortunes in a tin can.

Not to be too much of a fussbudget -- this was an airport restaurant, after all -- I asked the waitress what precisely had happened on the way from the menu to the plate. "I ordered fresh fruit salad," I reported gently. "Oh, honey," she responded cheerily, "that's just what they call it."

This small bit of dialogue might have left as fleeting an impression on me as the salad, except that it sounded so familiar. Frank Mankiewicz, political honcho and word buff, had just told me a similar tale about his brother's culinary adventure at a race track. His brother had sidled up to a boldly labeled Hot Pie cart, bought one, and bitten into a cold pie. When he mentioned this discrepancy to the owner of the cart, the man said brusquely, "Hot Pie is just the name of the pie."

What struck me in both cases was how unabashed the waitress and the vendor were. It was as if we had ordered hot dogs and then been surprised not to receive warm poodles. It was perfectly normal in their mind to call something by another name; only the picky thinkers, let alone eaters, would object.

Now I grant you that there is a tradition that led to this national identity crisis. We don't take our own titles as seriously as in the past. Every Taylor, Goldsmith, Cooper is no longer a tailor, goldsmith or cooper. I am not a Goodman. That's just my name.

But there is more than sloppy linguistics lurking in a portion of canned fresh fruit. We have gotten so casual about names that we barely expect them to mean anything and rarely hold anyone to the ones they use.

Consider the Vidalia onion. At this very moment, a Georgia court is trying to legally define this highly sweet and highly profitable vegetable named after a town in Georgia. Vidalia (pop. about 12,500) is the center of the onion's low-sulfur home turf. But one Raymond Scott was on trial there recently for rebagging and selling out- of-state onions as genuine Vidalias.

Scott had the gall to claim that Vidalia was just the name of a type of onion. It was the same old F-1 Yellow Granex 33 hybrid, wherever it was grown. In other words, it didn't have to be Vidalian to be a Vidalia. It's just the onion's name.

In the course of reporting on this trial, by the way, I discovered that the real Vidalia onions come with a registered tag from Georgia's growing area. What are they called? "Yumions."

I suspect that this whole trend began with advertising. The name of the game, the advertising game, is hype, as in hyperbole. It may be against the law to lie in an ad, but it is not necessary to tell the whole truth. Indeed, a consumer would be considered foolish if he or she believed that Dodge had created a "Revolution in the Streets" or that Winston was "America's Best."

Advertising is a kind of fantasy that often spills over into soft-core lying. We are not expected to take an ad literally, which is to say truthfully. In this atmosphere, no one objects if they call a perfume Opium or a cigarette Camel or a face cream Visible Difference. That's just the name of it.

Our consumer attitude toward truth in advertising slips over and alters our attitudes toward truth in government. It is the sort of thinking that allows the government to christen a missile the Peacekeeper and to label Margaret Heckler's dismissal to Dublin a "promotion."

Indeed, our expectations are so low, our tolerance of hype and hedging so high we even have new names for government PR. We call lying "disinformation," we call massive errors of fact or judgment "misstatements." And when Larry Speakes misspeaks, for example, and the press picks him up on it, the public considers us altogether too picky.

I admit to being picky. It's how I got into the fruit salad business. But I find myself allergic to this entire line of non-thinking. Indeed, the whole thing is enough to make me cry, right over the Yumions.