10 Historical Words That Don't Mean What You Think

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].