$5 words and what they mean

I’m a big fan of what I call $5 words – or college words. My favorite by far is subinfeudation, but that doesn’t fit the model I’m using for the words detailed in this post. Let’s take a look at the words Faustian, Kafkaesque, Orwellian, Machiavellian and Pyrrhic.


In its proper context, Faustian refers to some kind of abstract or metaphysical compromise, a Faustian bargain, in which the seeker of knowledge achieves that goal, but has to severely compromise his values or ethics along the way.

Let’s say that I was doing research on some aspect of Roman architecture. I found out that an archaeological dig near London had just turned up a Roman road nobody had ever known about (this actually just happened: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/crossrail-workers-discover-bedlam-bones-2141406). I felt so strongly that the digger’s notes could aid my research that I befriended one of them, then drugged him and stole his laptop containing all the info about the discovery on it to further my own research. That’s Faustian behavior.

Johann Faust was a legendary 15th & 16th century German mystic – an alchemist and magician. His name is attached to the nihilistic search for knowledge largely due to the efforts of Johann Spies, Christopher Marlowe and Johann Goethe, all of whom wrote apocryphal works about him.

(PS Apocryphal means “of suspect authenticity.” In one context, it can be attached to something that most likely didn’t happen – like the (apocryphal) story of George Washington cutting down his father’s favorite cherry tree, then refusing to lie about it. It can also be used to cast doubt upon the veracity of a written work, such as, in this context, Spies’ History of Johann Fausten, Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life & Death of Dr. Faustus, and Goethe’s Faust.)

(PPS Veracity means “truth” or “believability” in this context.)


Used properly, Kafkaesque means something that is completely baffling and nightmarishly disorienting, yet at the same time sinister and menacing.

The thing I’ve seen Kafkaesque used to describe the most is any kind of bureaucracy – like the IRS, DMV, ICE, the NVCC registrar’s office or any other agency that is driven by arcane rules & often incompetent, tenured employees. The way things work is so completely inexplicable that at the end of the day, you simply just have to laugh at how bizarre it all was – but you can’t really complain to anybody, because you’re afraid if you do, terrible things will happen to you.

(PPPS Inexplicable means “unable to be explained.”)

To understand where the term Kafkaesque originated, just read Franz Kafka’s book The Trial (which, in its original German, has a much more sinister title – Der Process). Kafka was a 20th century novelist who was in many ways the father of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction writing. Both authors were obsessed with themes of helplessness, alienation, transformation and dependence.


I imagine most everybody thinks they already know what Orwellian means. This term specifically refers to a society that resembles the one in his novel 1984. To more clearly define this atmosphere, since I think about 75% of the people that say they’ve read 1984 have not actually done so, Orwellian refers to a societal condition in which the people are over controlled in every aspect of their lives by a totalitarian, secretive, interfering, all-encompassing government and justifiably scared of the agents of said government. It implies that you have no privacy – and perhaps no individuality – whatsoever.

George Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair and besides Upton Sinclair, he is probably the world’s most well-known socialist writer. While Americans know him primarily for 1984 and his novella Animal Farm, he wrote prolifically and is considered one of the greatest British writers ever.


Similar to Faustian is Machiavellian, which applies to the pursuit of political or ruling power instead of knowledge. A Machiavellian ruler is one who is willing to use any tool – generally unethical if not outrightly illegal ones – to achieve and maintain a position of power. This is where the old cliche that “the ends justify the means” originates, meaning that it’s OK to do nasty, evil things to achieve a positive or good goal – like governmental stability or becoming wealthy.

The perfect example of this is Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. In his efforts to achieve reelection in 1972, Nixon green-lighted a group breaking into Democratic National Headquarters in order to find out information about their candidate and how the Democrats were going to run their campaigns against him and other Republicans. When news about this started to leak out, Nixon lied to everybody trying to cover it up until the evidence was so incontrovertible that he simply resigned the presidency and walked away from politics completely.

(PPPPS Incontrovertible means “unable to be denied or questioned.”)

I find it interesting that its title in Italian, Il Principe, is very similar to the word principle, which it seems to be the exact thing Machiavelli is saying rulers don’t need in their quest for power.

It is widely believed that Machiavelli based his “new prince” on a man called Cesare Borgia. Unlike many of the terms on this list, Machiavellian is used almost universally in a derogatory fashion, as it implies a person who will most ruthlessly lie, cheat, steal and murder anyone that stands between him and his goals.

(PPPPPS Derogatory means “negative.”)

Niccolo Machiavelli was a 15th century bureaucrat who, upon his exile after a minor civil war and subsequent power transfer, became a writer during a 15-year exile. He wrote his signature book, The Prince, after his patrons, the Medici family, fought their way back into control of the Florentine Republic, though he no longer worked for them at that point. He didn’t just write about politics, though, he also wrote songs, poems and comedic works, none of which anybody pays any attention at all.


The terms in this post are meant to be used in specific ways, and Pyrrhic is no different. Correctly used with the phrase “Pyrrhic victory,” it means a victory that is so costly that it’s really quite difficult to tell the winner from the loser.

The perfect example to illustrate this term is the historical event (and person) from which we derive the term in the first place. In 279 BC, the Battle of Asculum saw the Roman army attacking a Macedonian (Greek) army near the city of Asculum, about 200 miles southeast of Rome. Pyrrhus of Epirus led the Macedonian army of about 40,000 troops; Publius Decius Mus led the Roman army of – coincidentally – about 40,000 troops. The two armies deployed in the standard formation of the time – infantry in the middle, cavalry on the flanks – and fighting started. After two days of brutal combat, the Roman army left the field of battle in defeat – not at all a common occurrence at that time – having suffered about 8,000 casualties. The Macedonian army suffered some 3,000 casualties, but many of Pyrrhus’ best officers and front-line veterans were among them, leaving his army in a total shambles. Pyrrhus was reported to have said “Another such victory and we shall be undone,” from which we can infer that the cost of victory was so high that, in looking at the big picture, winning the battle simply wasn’t worth the cost of the victory.

Pyrrhus went on to lose his protracted war against Rome and was beheaded in battle in 272 BC after (allegedly) getting konked on the head by a roofing tile thrown by an old woman who recognized him.

(I would definitely use the word apocryphal to describe THAT part of the story!)

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