• nihilism •
Pronunciation: ni-ê-liz-êm, nai-ê-liz-êm • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: 1. The belief that all current norms, behaviors, and values are meaningless and should be abolished. 2. Rejection of all current systems, values, and principles in some creative or other area, such as 'religious nihilism'. 3. Belief that the political and religious establishments must be destroyed so that rational and human institutions can arise to replace them.
Notes: This basically political philosophy has been long ignored because of its obvious faults. It has been so often confused with its third definition today, that this definition has become a permanent fixture. Someone who holds nihilism as a belief is a nihilist who it nihilistic and thinks nihilistically.
In Play: There was a real Russian nihilist party at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. This party wanted to destroy the entire tsarist political system and see what happens. However, nihilism is now associated with the total destruction of anything: "Les Hope thinks the world is fast approaching a state of moral nihilism."
Word History: Nihil may be contracted to nil, as in nil desperandum "nothing to be despaired of" = "never give up". Nihil itself is a reduction of nihilum "not at all", made up of ne "not" + hilum "trifle, whit", of unknown origin. We do know the origin of ne is PIE ne "not, no", which also produced not and no in English and thousands of other words throughout the Indo-European languages. One of the least expected is negligee, borrowed from French négligée "(to be) neglected", comprised of an assimilated form of nec "not, and not" + liger, a left-over from Latin leger "to collect, pick up". By the way, nec is a contraction of ne-que "and not", which was a contemporary of nec. (Today's Good Word was generously recommended by Lew Jury, another prolific long-time contributor.)