10 Historical Words That Don't Mean What You Think

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.