10 Historical Words That Don't Mean What You Think



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

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


'Scatter Days' Get Uncle Joe's Ashes Out of the Closet

'Scatter Days' Get Uncle Joe's Ashes Out of the Closet

We look at the growing trend of Scatter Days in the U.S., where people may scatter the ashes of loved ones on the grounds of a funeral home for free.