10 Historical Words That Don't Mean What You Think

When people hear the word "Dickensian" they imagine a scene like this one from "Oliver Twist" — a place full of darkness and grime. But "Dickensian" can also meant characters that are larger than life or portrayed sentimentally.
Culture Club/Getty Images

Tell someone your workplace is so Dickensian, and your friends will likely understand that you mean the building is rather grimy and dilapidated, or somehow below an acceptable standard. That's because 19th-century English writer Charles Dickens often incorporated ratty homes and workplaces into his novels. Yet others argue that this term is being used incorrectly. Based on Dickens' novels, labeling something "Dickensian" could mean anything from sentimental to having larger-than-life characters. There is no one definition [source: Sherrill]. It's hard to use them in the right context as well since they are not used much in everyday conversation much like the longest word in English.

While terming a run-down office "Dickensian" may be a partially correct usage of the word, there are a surprising number of other historic words that many of us definitely are using erroneously. Like nirvana. Many of us use it as a substitute for heaven or paradise, but the Buddhist word actually means breaking free from the endless cycle of reincarnations — that often entail lives filled with suffering — and achieving absolute blessedness. It's achieving the highest state of enlightenment, which frees us from individual desires and sorrow. That may be a heavenly achievement, but it's not the same as heaven. What other words are you using incorrectly? Let's take a look.


10: Hedonism

Aristippus, a disciple of Socrates, was a founder of the philosophy of hedonism. He believed the chief aim of life was pleasure, particularly the sensual kind. However, self-control was also important.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Do a quick online search of "hedonism," and one of the first things you'll discover is a nudist resort in Jamaica. To those of us living in the 21st century, hedonism means indulging in anything that pleases us, especially of a sexual nature. Indeed, synonyms for hedonism include debauchery, carnality, sensuality and voluptuousness [source: Merriam-Webster]. But equating hedonism with debauchery is erroneous. And, in fact, philosophers call this definition "folk hedonism."

The term "hedonism" is derived from the Greek word for pleasure. At its most basic, hedonism is the philosophy that the only two things important in life are pleasure and pain. Pleasure is intrinsically good and valuable, while pain is intrinsically bad and should be avoided. But pleasure can mean many different things. Pleasure can be intellectual; for example, reading a good book. It can be altruistic, like helping your neighbor. Yes, pleasure can also be a sensation, including sexual encounters, but it can also be a foot rub. Some forms of hedonism also make a point to note that short-term pleasure may not be appropriate if it doesn't result in long-term pleasure over pain [source: Weijers].


9: Epicurean

Epicurus was influenced by the philosophy of hedonism.
© Alfredo Dagli Orti/The Art Archive/Corbis

Foodies often refer to themselves as epicures, which mean those with discerning palates who enjoy fine food and drink. The word "epicure" was derived from the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 B.C.E.), who, people presume, must have been quite the foodie himself [source: Sedley]. But while Epicurus is considered one of the world's most significant hedonistic thinkers, today's use of the words "epicure" and "epicurean" are quite misleading.

The ancient hedonists, as you just read, believed things are good because they're pleasant, or bad because they're painful. Epicurus was considered an egoistic hedonist — that is, someone who believes what is good for you is whatever you, yourself, enjoys. Not what your mother enjoys, or your best friend, or the smartest person in you class. Life — while it should be based on moral virtue — is really only worthwhile if everyone enjoys their life in their own way. Egoistic hedonists, interestingly, also believed in moderating all desires, whether for food, drink, sexual pleasure or even politics. If a person indulges in a particular pleasure too freely, the thinking goes, he runs the risk of becoming a slave to that pleasure [source: Sedley]. So ironically, today's epicures are not at all people Epicurus himself would have admired.


8: Stoic

This painting by Jacques-Louis David portrays the death of Seneca. Seneca was a leading Stoic and the tutor of Emperor Nero. Seneca was forced to commit suicide after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Nero.
DeAgostini/Getty Images

"Stoic" is sometimes contrasted with "Epicure." If your beloved spouse tragically died young, leaving you with four kids to raise solo, you might very well be called "stoic" if you accepted your fate and soldiered on, rather than blubbering over it. Because that's what being stoic means — to accept whatever happens to you without complaining about it, and without showing emotion. Except, that's not quite right.

The original Stoic was someone who followed the teachings of Stoicism, a philosophical movement founded in Greece around 300 B.C.E. Popular during the Roman Empire, Stoicism was based on the concepts of meditation, mindfulness and self-examination, and offered practitioners theoretical precepts and inspirational texts to ponder. In essence, it was a bit like a religion, and has some striking similarities with Christianity [sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Pigliucci].


So how did the word become linked with emotionless acceptance? Stoics spent a lot of time thinking about death and dying, often considered the ultimate test of one's character. And they did believe that emotions such as fear, envy or passionate love resulted from false judgments, and so a true Stoic would be immune to them. A virtuous life (and Stoics believed virtue was necessary for happiness) was a life that was free from passion [sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Pigliucci].

7: Cynic

Diogenes of Sinope is pictured with Alexander the Great. Diogenes was a famous Cynic.
DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

The Greeks are again behind a word whose meaning has become muddled — "cynic." Today, the term is used to describe a person who feels everyone is motivated by selfish reasons — someone who is always negative and suspecting of what others say and do. But the original Cynics were people who belonged to an ancient sect of Greek philosophers. Cynics strived for virtue, and felt the only way to achieve it was through self-control, asceticism and poverty. Pleasure was not viewed as something good.

One famous Cynic was Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes went above and beyond most other Cynics, dismissing much of the day's comforts and social conventions in striving to lead the desired virtuous life. For instance, he'd walk barefoot through snow in an attempt to acclimate his body to the cold. He also apparently felt it his duty to remonstrate his fellow citizens if he found them doing something pleasurable, or indulging in any type of luxury [source: American Heritage Dictionary].


Although "Cynic" was used correctly when it first appeared in English in the 1500s, it quickly morphed into "cynic" (with a small "c"). Perhaps Diogenes' character influenced the switch. One story says people made fun of him at a banquet by throwing him bones as if he were a dog. Diogenes responded by urinating on the bones [source: American Heritage Dictionary].

6: Kafkaesque

Franz Kafka was a Czech author whose bizarre novels gave birth to the overused phrase "Kafkaesque."
Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

If you were trying to get information at a government office and were sent from one department to the next with no good explanation, you might describe the situation as "Kafkaesque." But would you be right? Franz Kafka was a famous 20th-century writer from Prague, in what's now the Czech Republic. His novels, most of which were published posthumously, were filled with characters who faced some sort of omnipotent power they had to struggle against — a power so strong, it could easily break humans. In "The Metamorphosis," for example, a man wakes up as a big bug. In "The Trial," Kafka's most successful work, protagonist Joseph K. must defend himself in court against a nameless crime he has supposedly committed [sources: Edwards, Biography].

In the 1960s, with Eastern Europe squashed under rigid Communist governments, the term "Kafkaesque" suddenly popped into use, and then misuse. People began tossing it off to describe rather harmless situations, such as racing out the door to catch a bus, then discovering the bus drivers were striking that day. But "Kafkaesque" is a far more daunting and soul-crushing descriptor.


In an article published in The New York Times, author Frederick R. Karl, who penned an exhaustive biography of Kafka, explained it this way: "What's Kafkaesque is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world. You don't give up, you don't lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don't stand a chance."

Perhaps, "Kafkasesque" is the right word after all for your government office ordeal.

5: Karma

An Indian pupil studies the Rigveda or Vedas, which has one of the earliest mentions of karma, a word meaning "action." Karma doesn't signify instant retribution or reward, but rather punishment or reward in a future lifetime.
Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

At some point, you've likely heard a conversation something like this: "I'm exhausted from helping out at the soup kitchen today." "Yeah, but that kind of work will bring you a lot of good karma." Or maybe seen the guy who cut you off in traffic get rear-ended just a mile later, and thought, "Karma just got you." Karma, we learn, is basically getting what we deserve, whether that's something positive, because we've done something good, or something negative, due to our poor behavior. But that's not what karma really is, or how it works.

Karma is a Hindu and Buddhist concept that teaches all of your actions, through a wave of successive incarnations, will influence your destiny. In essence, karma is retributive justice; you're punished or rewarded in a future life according to your actions in this one. The concept of karma can't be understood, and isn't valid, outside of reincarnation. Because karma plays out over a long time, over lifetimes. It's not something that is summoned up in the moment [sources: American Heritage Dictionary, Goldberg].


4: Luddite

Ned Lud was a possibly mythical early weaver who railed against industrialization and was the inspiration for the Luddites of a few decades later.
Stock Montage/Getty Image

Britain's Prince Charles was called a "Luddite" for speaking out against genetically modified crops. So was novelist Jonathan Franzen, after he panned e-books and Twitter. Long-used to describe someone who scorns today's technological advances for those of the past, especially when it comes to the workplace, the description is totally inaccurate. The Luddites were a group of experienced weavers from Nottinghamshire, England who got a bit hot under the collar when companies began replacing them with automated looms in the early 19th century, during Britain's Industrial Revolution. Gathering together, the weavers dubbed themselves Luddites after General Ludd or King Ludd, a fabled figure from Sherwood Forest supposedly named after Ned Lud, a weaver said to have wrecked two stocking frames a few decades earlier [source: de Castella].

With trade unions banned, the Luddites fought back against the corporations the only way they could — by rioting. The workers attacked the looms, burned the mills and even skirmished with the British army. A total of 25 Luddites were hanged and another 63 were shipped to Australia. The Luddites weren't anti-technology, they were pro-protecting-their-jobs-and-wages. It wasn't until the 1970s that the term was used to refer to technophobes; now, this new definition appears here to stay [source: de Castella].


3: Nimrod

Stephen Boyd portrays the defiant King Nimrod in a scene from the 1966 film "The Bible: In The Beginning".
20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

"You nimrod!" This disparaging remark is used to tell someone you think they're stupid or a jerk. Maybe both. But Nimrod was mentioned in the Bible, which doesn't paint him as a guy who was a few bricks short of a full load. Nimrod was the great-grandson of none other than Noah, and the grandson of Ham. A mighty warrior and hunter, he founded Babylon, the first great empire after the devastating flood.

A rebel and a leader, Nimrod is also credited with constructing the Tower of Babel, an immense structure topped with a temple. The purpose of the tower was for his followers to reach God to destroy him. According to the Bible and other ancient texts, God thwarted the plan by creating multiple languages so the people could not understand each other and began to scatter [sources: Livingston, Mystery Babylon].


So how did Nimrod's name come to mean someone slow-witted? There's no definitive answer, but many people claim it was thanks to Bugs Bunny of "Looney Tunes" fame sometime in the 1940s. Bugs was supposedly making fun of hapless hunter Elmer Fudd by sarcastically calling him "Nimrod," the skilled hunter of yore.

2: Orwellian

British author George Orwell is the source for the word "Orwellian", a term that has been used by writers on both the left and the right.
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The name brings a slight chill. "Orwellian" is used to refer to a situation similar to that described by author George Orwell in his novel "1984." The book depicted a future totalitarian state featuring thought control, governmental surveillance and the practice of giving something bad a name that makes it sound good. The Oxford English Dictionary first noted the use of "Orwellian" in 1950, just one year after "1984" was published [source: Peters]. Since then, the term has come in handy for all sorts of situations, generally in a negative way. Consider for instance, the Clear Skies Act of 2003, which was criticized by environmentalists for actually making it easier for power plants to pollute the air (the act never passed) [source: Curtius and Hamburger]. Or how about the discovery that the U.S. National Security Agency was secretly collecting phone records of private citizens in 2013?

The problem is that George Orwell wrote more than one novel. He was a writer who penned other books as well as a socialist thinker. He was also, say many, a pretty nice guy. "Orwellian" should simply mean someone who admires George Orwell's works and ideas. The Oxford English Dictionary does say this is one definition [sources: Nunberg, Peters]. Unfortunately, though, not the primary one. Interestingly, both people on the left and the right have used the phrase "Orwellian" to describe policies they disagree with. Sorry, George.


1: Pharisee

This 1842 engraving shows Jesus discoursing with the Pharisees.
© Corbis

Those sanctimonious Pharisees! At least that's how many people believe they're depicted in the Bible, which is why the term "pharisee" today is used to mean someone who is self-righteous and hypocritical. But this isn't really an accurate definition. The Pharisees — the name means "separate ones" or "separatists" — were an ancient Jewish sect that believed in strict adherence to Jewish traditions and religious practices. They interpreted scriptures literally. While some of their contemporaries raised an eyebrow over their zealousness toward Jewish law, they were respected by many because they were commoners who wanted to help people of all classes study Moses' law. (Their rivals, the Sadducees, were mainly aristocrats and priests.) The Pharisees also didn't bow down to the hated Roman authorities [sources: Johnson, American Heritage Dictionary].

But were they self-righteous? In biblical Book of Luke, the Pharisees were angry with Jesus for healing a man with a paralyzed hand on the Sabbath. Yet looked at another way, the Pharisees were following their true beliefs, and felt strict adherence to the law was what God desired. Also, the biblical portrayal of Pharisees is more nuanced than might seem at first glance. For instance, a respected Pharisee named Gamaliel intervenes to save two of the apostles during a trial, in the Book of Acts. And the Talmud, the legal commentary on the Torah which was written by the Pharisees, also condemned hypocrisy [source: Abrami]. The Pharisees were the only Jewish sect which survived the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and so formed the basis of modern Judaism.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Historical Words That Don't Mean What You Think

As a writer, I pride myself on my vocabulary. But I'm not too proud to admit I was surprised at the true definitions of some of these words.

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Abrami, Leo. "Were all the Pharisees hypocrites?" (Aug. 21, 2015). http://www.academia.edu/12800237/WERE_ALL_THE_PHARISEES_HYPOCRITES_
  • Biography. "Frank Kafka." (Aug. 14, 2015) http://www.biography.com/people/franz-kafka-9359401
  • De Castella, Tom. "Are you a Luddite?" BBC News. April 20, 2012. (Aug. 10, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17770171
  • Dictionary. "Nirvana." (Aug. 14, 2015) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nirvana
  • Edwards, Ivana. "The Essence of 'Kafkaesque'." The New York Times. Dec. 29, 1991. (Aug. 12, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/29/nyregion/the-essence-of-kafkaesque.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
  • Goldberg, Philip. "Karmic Relief for the Misuse of Karma." Elephant Journal. March 20, 2012. (Aug. 11, 2015) http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/03/karmic-relief-for-the-misuse-of-karma/
  • Johnson, Murray. "The Righteousness of the Pharisees." Prevail Magazine. (Aug. 10, 2015) http://www.prevailmagazine.org/the-righteousness-of-the-pharisees/
  • Livingston, Dr. David. "Nimrod — Who was he? Was he godly or evil?" Christian Answers. (Aug. 10, 2015) http://www.christiananswers.net/dictionary/nimrod.html
  • Merriam-Webster. "Hedonism." (Aug. 14, 2015) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hedonism
  • Merriam-Webster. "Nimrod." (Aug. 10, 2015) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nimrod
  • Merriam-Webster. "Pharisee." (Aug. 10, 2015) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pharisee
  • Mystery-Babylon. "Origins of Babylon Part 1." (Aug. 10, 2015) http://mystery-babylon.org/originsofbabylon.html
  • Nunberg, Geoffrey. "If It's 'Orwellian,' It's Probably Not." The New York Times. June 22, 2003. (Aug. 10, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/22/weekinreview/22NUNB.html
  • Peters, Mark. "The Rampant Misuse of 'Orwellian'." Good. (Aug. 13, 2015) http://magazine.good.is/articles/the-rampant-misuse-of-orwellian
  • Pigliucci, Massimo. "How to Be a Stoic." The New York Times. Feb. 2, 2015. (Aug. 10, 2015) http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/how-to-be-a-stoic/?_r=0
  • Sedley, David. "In defense of hedonism." New Humanist. April 14, 2014. (Aug. 10, 2015) https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/4628/in-defence-of-hedonism
  • Sherrill, Matthew. "Ditching Dickensian." The Paris Review. April 30, 2015. (Aug. 14, 2015) http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/04/30/ditching-dickensian/
  • The Free Dictionary. "Cynic." (Aug. 10, 2015) http://www.thefreedictionary.com/cynic
  • The Free Dictionary. "Karma." (Aug. 10, 2015) http://www.thefreedictionary.com/karma
  • The Free Dictionary. "Pharisee." (Aug. 10, 2015) http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Pharisee
  • Thinking Through Christianity. "Insulting Nimrod." Sept. 26, 2012. (Aug. 13, 2015) http://thinkingthroughchristianity.com/2012/09/insulting-nimrod.html
  • Vocabulary. "Nirvana." (Aug. 14, 2015) http://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/nirvana
  • Weijers, Dan. "Hedonism." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Aug. 14, 2015) http://www.iep.utm.edu/hedonism/#SH4d