More on the Meaning of the Word ‘Self-Esteem’

Here I discuss the definitions of “self-esteem” that are found in four standard American dictionaries: the American Heritage Dictionary, Webster’s New World Dictionary, Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, and the DK Illustrated Oxford Dictionary. How many new, exciting meanings will we find in these dictionaries?

KEYWORDS: American Heritage Dictionary, being proud, DK Illustrated Oxford Dictionary, Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, philosophy, pride, psychology, self-esteem, self-esteem as belief in oneself, self-esteem as conceit, self-esteem as pride, self-esteem as self-respect, Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s New World Dictionary, word meanings.

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In a recent article about the word ‘Self-Esteem’, I looked at two editions of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to come up with a list of possible meanings. I successfully distilled five various interpretations, and I presented them in a typical hierarchical “typology” type of chart.

But the question is: Are there more meanings to be found? Or did the two editions of the SOED cover all the possibilities?

As we will see in this article, one of the most fundamental meanings of the noun “self-esteem” was not found in any of the two SOED editions that I looked at.

How can that be? Are the scholars in Oxford, England forgetting important meanings? Or is it that some meanings are found only in the American language, but not in the British dialect?

I do not have a good answer to that question right now. But I might return to this topic in the future.

Meanwhile, let us now further explore the noun “self-esteem”, and see what we can learn from these four American editions.

PART 1: “SELF-ESTEEM” IN THE AHD

Let us start with the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, where we find the following definition of “self-esteem” (Morris 1973, p. 1176b):

self-es·teem (sĕlf´ ə-stēm´ ) n. Pride in oneself.

Our first observation here is that this is the shortest definition of “self-esteem” that we have seen so far. So even though I called the entry in the 2002 edition of the SOED “compact”, this one is even more compact.

It is more compact in terms of meanings. For we are just presented with one meaning, while the 2002 edition of the SOED had two meanings.

And the AHD is also more compact in terms of the number of words used. For here we only have three words in the definition, compared to the SOED’s eight words (which has four words for its first meaning, and another four for its second meaning).

The Innovation

So what is our verdict, then, in terms of the quality of this AHD entry? How good is it?

At first glance one might be tempted to think that there is nothing really new in this AHD definition of “self-esteem”. We already know, from the 2002 edition of the SOED, that the word is a noun, so that’s nothing new. And we also know that “self-esteem” amounts to a “Favourable appreciation or opinion of oneself” (SOED 1973) or “high regard for oneself, good opinion of oneself” (SOED 2002). So there’s not so much to discuss, either. Or?

On a closer look, though, I think the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary have arrived at a very important definition. Although merely three words long, that definition really expands our knowledge of what the word “self-esteem” might mean.

Although it certainly is an accomplishment just to arrive at a three-word definition, the real innovation is that the AHD editors have included the word “pride” (which none of the Oxford editors mentioned). And why is that inclusion so important?

It’s because the different meanings of “self-esteem” seem to be related to (some of) the corresponding meanings of “pride”. Thus, there is, I think, some “relativity” going on here, in terms of these two words: they seem to be “bound together” in different ways, as I will explain later.

So my verdict is that this is a very useful dictionary entry, which really expands our knowledge of what the word “self-esteem” might mean, due to its (apparent) link to the word “pride”. Expressed differently, “self-esteem” is (or might be seen as) another word for “being proud”.

PART 2: “SELF-ESTEEM” IN WNWD

Let us now look at the “self-esteem” entry in Webster’s New World Dictionary (Guralnik 1973, p. 1292a):

self-es·teem (-ə stēm´ ) n. 1. belief in oneself; self-respect 2. undue pride in oneself; conceit — SYN. see PRIDE.

As we can see, the definition in Webster’s is substantially longer than the one in the AHD. But is it adding something?

I think it does add to our knowledge. And there are several things about it that are noteworthy.

Self-Esteem as Belief in Oneself (1)

The first interesting thing is that “self-esteem” might be conceived as a “belief in oneself”, according to the first part of the first definition item. But why is that interesting, you may ask?

Well, as I see it, this phrase may mean at least two things. One thing it could mean is that a person with high self-esteem might subscribe to sentences such as “I am a very powerful person” or “I am the best football player on the planet” or “I am the most beautiful woman in this city”, etc.

So in this scenario, the degree of self-esteem is measured in terms of the proposition (or sentence, or story) that the person is constantly thinking and returning to. If he or she is thinking bad things about themselves, their self-esteem would not be very high; but if they start thinking more positive thoughts about themselves, then can gradually develop more self-esteem.

Thus, when we thinking about a belief in oneself as a sentence or proposition, we are essentially talking about an opinion about oneself. So this meaning is then more or less identical to one of my previously mentioned meanings, as discussed in my previous article:

– as a publicly expressed opinion

Now let us look at an alternate meaning.

Self-Esteem as Belief in Oneself (2)

Another scenario might be that there is something else going on, either in isolation, or in combination with thinking the thoughts in the first scenario.

What I am referring to is simply the feeling, or the emotion, of believing in oneself. So without thinking the thought “I believe in myself” (or any other thought, or sentence, or story), one might have a strong internal feeling of self-esteem that supports one’s daily affairs in various situations.

And this then fits perfectly with the ideas in my previous article, where I classified one’s internal experience in two ways:

– as a perception using feelings only
– as a perception using feelings and opinions

One thing that I did not talk about in that article was the idea that perhaps there is a third option: Could one not just use internal opinions, without using any feelings?

Well, the answer to that depends on how we structure our model of human beings and their inner experiences. Since I am using the Abraham-Hicks model of human emotions, I am confident that we never can “unhook” our core emotions. Essentially, as human beings, we are vibration and emotion. And the emotion switch is therefore always “on”.

That is, of course, a very long story, and not something that I wish to spend further time on in this article. But that subject matter is, indeed, very interesting to think about. So I may publish a separate article on it later.

Self-Esteem as Belief in Oneself (3)

Yet another thing that I did not mention in my previous article was the following objection, which focuses in on the first item in my list above (i.e., “as a perception using feelings only”):

“How can you have the first item in your list, at all? I mean, if one uses the Abraham-Hicks (and Seth) version of the interplay between emotions and thoughts, one has to conclude that that emotions are the result of our thoughts, and not the other way around. Thoughts come first, after which we experience feelings.”

My response to that objection is this. Sure, Abraham-Hicks and Seth have such theories. And those theories are, in my view, correct.

However, I do not mean, in my first item, that the internal perception of such emotions are not created by thoughts.

What I am trying to say is that we have to carefully distinguish between “established networks of old thoughts”, and “singular, new thoughts”.

Thus, the idea is that our “established networks of old thoughts” is the generator of our “general” emotions and our “mood”. And we do not have to explicitly express them, neither internally nor externally, for our “general” emotions and mood to be like it is.

For our network of thoughts and beliefs is already established many years ago, and is the “engine” that feeds our emotions.

But we can, of course, “complement” those old, accepted thoughts and beliefs with new thoughts and beliefs, (slowly) adjusting our self-esteem in the desired direction.

But in any case, my original idea is still intact. For in any given situation, either we think some explicit thoughts, or we don’t. And in both cases we experience feelings.

Self-Esteem as Belief in Oneself (4)

However, while we are at it, let’s adjust my previous definition slightly, to make it even clearer:

– as a perception of feelings only
– as a perception of opinions and feelings

My first adjustment is this. Instead of talking about “a perception using feelings”, I am now talking about “a perception of feelings”. The word “using” sounds, to my ears, a little “synthetic” and unnatural, so I think the word “of” fits better.

Another adjustment is that by switching the placement of the words “feelings” and “opinions” (on the second line), we can more clearly indicate the causal connection between thought and emotion. So by mentioning “opinions” first, we (tacitly) point out that it is the opinions that are “driving” the emotions (or “feelings”).

Self-Esteem as Self-Respect

Another definition of “self-esteem” in Webster’s is “self-respect”. Since this item is coming right after the first item, and is separated by a semicolon only, I take it to mean that the meaning of “self-respect” is rather close to the meaning of the first item (“belief in oneself”).

In other words, “self-respect” and “belief in oneself” are synonyms, or near-synonyms.

The exact nature of this “closeness in meaning” is not entirely clear, although the editors of Webster’s define “self-respect” as “proper respect for oneself and one’s worth as a person” (Guralnik 1973, p. 1293a).

Thus, one might discuss (in some other post or article) things such as “What is ‘respect’?”, “What is ‘worth’?”, and then compare those answers with the meaning of “self-esteem” and “belief in oneself”.

Self-Esteem as Undue Pride in Oneself

Now let us move on to item 2a: “undue pride in oneself”.

This item is very interesting. This is not only because the word “pride” is used, just as in the AHD entry above (“Pride in oneself”), but because here, in the Webster’s item, that phrase is qualified by the adjective “undue”.

So it’s not just “pride” that is meant, but “undue pride”. Why is that so important?

It is important because the word “pride” has many meanings. And one of those meanings is “due pride” or “justified pride”, while another of its meanings is “undue pride”.

So although the AHD definition was excellent in that it pointed to the word “pride”, it did not clearly distinguish between “due pride” and “undue pride”. And why is that?

One possibility is that the AHD editors thought that “pride” and “self-esteem” were so synonymous that it was no point qualifying them. So even if “self-esteem” could mean either “due pride” or “undue pride”, it still would boil down to “pride” in the end.

Another possibility, of course, is that they thought of “self-esteem” only as “due pride” (or only as “undue pride”). But this seems unlikely, since they have done such a great job in their article on “pride”, which lists six meanings, out of which two are “due pride” (listed as “a sense of one’s own proper dignity or value”) and “undue pride” (listed as “An excessively high opinion of oneself”) (Guralnik 1973, p. 1039a).

In any case, since we now have found the article in Webster’s, it seems rather pointless to further discuss the reasoning behind the formulation of the AHD entry for “self-esteem”. So I will leave that discussion here, and instead focus a little bit more on the entry in Webster’s.

Self-Esteem as Conceit

Item 2b in the Webster’s definition of “self-esteem” is “conceit”. We note, once again, that this word is supplied right after a semicolon, thus indicating that it has a supplementary function, in relation to item 2a (“undue pride in oneself”).

But the trouble here is the also “conceit” can mean many things. The “conceit” article in Webster’s contains five definitions of that word (as a noun), out of which only one of them seems to fit: “an exaggerated opinion of oneself, one’s merits, etc.; vanity” (Guralnik 1973, p. 293a).

So “conceit”, then, should not be interpreted as a synonym to “self-esteem” in its other meanings: not as “an idea, thought or concept” (item 1); not as “an affection in style or in expression of ideas” (item 3); not as “a flight of imagination” (item 4); and not as “a small, imaginatively designed item” (item 5) (Guralnik 1973, p. 293a).

Summing up the Entry in Webster’s

The “self-esteem” entry in Webster’s New World Dictionary has been really helpful.

First of all, it has confimed (with the AHD) that “self-esteem” might be understood to be a synonym for “pride”. This can be understood from the fact that whole article ends with “SYN. see PRIDE”, thus indicating that “pride” is a synonym (or near-synonym).

Second, unlike the AHD, it has also confirmed that both self-esteem” and “pride” travel in pairs: so there is “due self-esteem” and “undue self-esteem”; and there is “due pride” and “undue pride”.

It is also worth noting that the “self-respect” entry in Webster’s (“proper respect for oneself and one’s worth as a person”) does not travel in pairs. So, according to Webster’s, there is seemingly only “proper” respect to be had. Thus, “self-respect” presumably only amounts to “due respect”, and not to “undue respect”.

PART 3: “SELF-ESTEEM” IN FWSD

Let us now look at the “self-esteem” entry in Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary (Marckwardt 1966, p. 1141b):

self-es·teem (self´ es·tēm´ ) n. A good opinion of oneself; an overestimate of oneself. See synonyms under EGOTISM, PRIDE.

Similarly to the “self-esteem” definition in Webster’s, Funk & Wagnalls supplies two main items: a “due self-esteem” (in the form of “A good opinion of oneself”) and “undue self-esteem” (in the form of “an overestimate of oneself”).

But also note, if we are to be a little picky, that the editors of the Funk & Wagnalls have only separated the two items with a semicolon, indicating that the second item is not really very different than the first one.

However, I do think that Webster’s is more careful here, since they regard “due self-esteem” and “undue self-esteem” not as synonyms or near-synonyms, but as quite different in meaning. And this is the reason why Webster’s is not just separating “due self-esteem” and “undue self-esteem” with a semicolon, but that lists them with different numbers, as item 1 and item 2.

Are Egotism and Pride Synonyms?

So when Funk & Wagnalls then supplies, at the end of their article, the idea that “egotism” and “pride” are synonyms, what do they mean? Do they then mean that both “due self-esteem” and “undue self-esteem” are synonyms for “egotism” and “pride”?

If that would be the case, then both “egotism” and “pride” would have to travel in pairs. So we would have to confirm that Funk & Wagnalls think that there is such a thing as “due egotism” and “undue egotism”, and that there also is a thing as “due pride” and “undue pride”.

As for “pride”, they clearly present the ideas of “due pride” and “undue pride” as two different meanings, and they have labeled them as item 2 and item 1, respectively).

So the first item they list (presumably because it is the most common) is “undue pride”, which they define as “An undue sense of one’s own superiority”; and the second item they list is “due pride”, which they give as “A proper sense of personal dignity and worth” (Marckwardt 1966, p. 1001a).

Thus, for the “pride” definition in Funk & Wagnalls, they indeed think of it as travelling in pairs, and thus “due pride” would be a synonym for “due self-esteem”, while “undue pride” would be a synonym for “undue self-esteem”. But what about their “egotism” entry?

Well, it is not entirely clear how they view “egotism”, in terms of whether it could mean “due egotism” or “undue egotism”. But their main definition of that word is “The habit or practice of thinking and talking much of oneself, or the spirit that leads to this practice” (Marckwardt 1966, p. 404).

The implication, though, is that thinking and talking much of oneself is not commonly regarded as a positive thing. So one might conclude here that the word “egotism”, for the F&W editors, boils down to “undue egotism” only. Thus, our preliminary conclusion is that “egotism” is not really a synonym for “self-esteem” (or for “pride”) [see also Note 1].

PART 4: “SELF-ESTEEM” IN THE DKIOD

Now let us turn to Dorling Kindersley’s (and Oxford University Press’s) DK Illustrated Oxford Dictionary, to see what it says about the noun “self-esteem” (Abate 2003, p. 747c):

self-es·teem /sélfistéem/ n. 1 a good opinion of oneself; self-confidence. 2 an unduly high regard for oneself; conceit.

Here is nothing really new, in terms of the basic entries. It is, in fact, very similar to the entry in Webster’s, because of its clear demarcation of the “due self-esteem” on the one hand, and the “undue self-esteem” on the other.

However, one thing the DK dictionary adds is the “self-confidence” synonym, as found in the “due self-esteem” definition (main category 1). This may be discussed separately in another place.

Other than that, there is not much to add regarding the DK dictionary.

PART 5: THE SYNTHESIS

It is now time for a synthesis of our results so far, so that we can get a good overview of what “self-esteem” could mean.

I am here not just incorporating the results from this article, but also from my previous article, where I used two editions of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in a similar process.

But as we have seen above, I have already edited some of the results from that previous article, so our starting point is this, in terms of the Oxford items pertaining to our inner perception:

– as a perception of feelings only
– as a perception of opinions and feelings

But we also had one other meaning, related to “opinion”, which can be written or uttered (or otherwise expressed) so that others can be informed:

– as a publicly expressed opinion

And the last thing coming from my previous article are the two meanings related to phrenology:

– as a mental faculty (in phrenology)
– as a physical ‘bump’ on the head (in phrenology)

So now to the question: What should we add to this, from this present article? Although there are many potential add-on to be considered, I feel that the only thing that is firmly established right now, is that “self-esteem” has a very strong connection to “pride”.

Therefore I suggest the following new definitions for “self-esteem”:

– as due pride
– as undue pride

This now leads up to our new graph. The result, then, is presented below, in a hierarchical typology of the different possible interpretations of the word “self-esteem” (click image to enlarge):

Figure 1. The hierarchical typology (version 2) of the seven different meanings of the word “self-esteem”, as derived from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, Webster’s New World Dictionary, Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, and the DK Illustrated Oxford Dictionary.

CONCLUSION

As we have seen, the word “self-esteem” can be understood in seven basic ways: as a perception of feelings only, as a perception of opinions and feelings, as a publicly expressed opinion, as due pride, as undue pride, and, in its two phrenological meanings, as a mental faculty, and as a physical ‘bump’ on the head.

Chris Bocay

NOTES

  1. There is an abundance of information in the Funk & Wagnalls about terms such as “self-esteem”, “pride”, “self-respect”, etc. And that information is not merely available in the main entry for each of these words, but there are complementary definitions found in the definitions of other words. So, for example, we have a different definition of “self-esteem” available in the entry for “pride” (Marckwardt 1966, p. 1001a) and in the entry for “egotism” (Marckwardt 1966, p. 404a). These may be interesting to discuss elsewhere.

REFERENCES

  • Abate, Frank, et al., eds. (2003), DK Illustrated Oxford Dictionary. Revised & Updated. New York: DK Publishing, Inc.; and New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. [Link to book]
  • Guralnik, David B., ed. (1978), Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. Second College Edition. Cleveland: William Collins + World Publishing Co., Inc. [also published by Simon & Schuster] [Link to book]
  • Little, William, et al. (1973), The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Third Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Link to book]
  • Marckwardt, Albert H., et al., eds. (1966), Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of the English Language: International Edition. 2 vols. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. [Link to book]
  • Morris, William, ed. (1973), The American Heritage English Dictionary of the English Language. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co.; and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. [Link to book]
  • Trumble, William R., et al. (2002), The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Fifth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Link to book]

Copyright © 2022 by Chris Bocay. All rights reserved.

First published: Mon 11 Apr 2022
Last revised: Thu 11 Aug 2022

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