Word: nihilism

Pronunciation: NY-ə-li-zəm / NEE-ə-li-zəm

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Fear not, the inspiration for today’s Word of the Week did not come from a personal crisis or anything of the sort. I actually came across the adjective form of this word while reading a character description from one of my favorite video games (the very mention of which would make this post a spoiler for said game). The character in question, according to speculation among players, was once quite dedicated to scientific work, but since becoming aware that he exists within a repeating timeline, gradually deteriorated into a lazy and skeptical shell of his former self. Believing that nothing he does matters as another reset of the timeline will undo it all, it’s easy to see how the poor guy has succumbed to such “nihilism”!

“Nihilism” is the rejection of all moral and religious principles, often resulting from the belief that life is meaningless. The word arose in the early 19th century as the German noun Nihilismus, a term coined/popularized by the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. This noun stems from the Latin noun nihil, meaning “nothing”.

Aside from its primary meaning, “nihilism” also has a couple of sub-definitions in philosophy and history. Philosophically, it means “extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence”, while historically, “Nihilism” refers to “the doctrine of an extreme Russian revolutionary party c.1900, which found nothing to approve of in the established social order”. Also note the other forms of the word “nihilism”: the noun “nihilist” (“a person who believes that life is meaningless and rejects all religious and moral principles”) and the adjective “nihilistic” (“rejecting all religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless”). Today, the word seems to be most commonly used as a synonym for “skepticism” and, in religious contexts, “atheism”. If you write characters who have completely given up on life and choose to abandon all principles, you may be touching on some “nihilism” in your stories!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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