What Does the Word “Self-Esteem” Mean?

Titlepic: What Does the Word Self-Esteem Mean?

What is the meaning of the word “self-esteem”, as understood from two different editions of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary?

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This article is about the word “self-esteem“. This word is important for anyone who wants to have a long and happy life.

Therefore, in this post, I would like to sketch out the different possible meanings of the word “self-esteem”, so that we then easier might be able to understand its use in different contexts and situations.

To be able to do this, I am going to use two of my editions of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, along with some other high-quality reference books. For I am confident that we will end up with some interesting finds, in terms of what this word might mean.

But before I start, I am going to point out that I am using my usual acronyms for the dictionary items, in order to easier reference them. So, for example, the second item (of three) in the SOED 1973 edition will be labelled as SOED73-2, while the first item (of two) in the SOED 2002 edition will be referred to as SOED02-1.

Now, let’s get going!


Let us begin by looking at that edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary edition that was published in the beginning of the 1970s. Here “self-esteem” is defined in the following way (Little 1973, p. 1933c):

self-esteem. 1657. [SELF- 1 a.] Favourable appreciation or opinion of oneself. b. Phrenology. One of the mental faculties to which a ‘bump’ is assigned; the ‘bump’ itself 1815.”

To understand these definitions better, let’s look at them, one after another.

Self-Esteem as Favorable Appreciation or Opinion

The SOED73-1 item (i.e., the first item in the article of the SOED 1973 edition) is given as “Favourable appreciation or opinion of oneself”.

“Self-esteem” is an old term, for its first occurrence is traced back (by the Oxford editors) to 1657. Thus it is almost 400 hundred years old.

We also note that it seems that the basic meaning of this word has essentially stayed the same throughout all these years. So the modern understanding of this word, in its SOED73-1 meaning, is basically the same as it was centuries ago.

Let us now look more closely at the definition. For it seems as if this item contains, in fact, two separate definitions. For the text really says: “Favourable appreciation [of oneself], or [favourable] opinion of oneself”.

In other words, it tells us that the SOED73-1 item can be seen in two ways:

– as a favorable appreciation of oneself
– as a favorable opinion of oneself

So here we have two kinds of things to work with: a self-esteem that is some sort of “appreciation”, and a self-esteem that is some sort of “opinion”.

Self-Esteem as Appreciation

Let us first talk about the idea that self-esteem is some sort of “appreciation”.

Now, as we saw in my post What Does the Word ‘Appreciation’ Mean?, the word “appreciation” can mean different things as well. And the most interesting meaning of “appreciation” in this context is the “appreciation as perception”.

Why is that? Because an appreciation of oneself always originates internally, within one’s mind. It is there it is formulated and evaluated (on a conscious or/and subconscious level), and it is within oneself that one can experience the feeling of that self-esteem, whether it is a positive evaluation or a negative evaluation [but see Note 1].

By labeling self-esteem as a perception (instead of as an appreciation, which could potentially mean several things) we are essentially saying that this definition only pertains to that inner evaluation and inner experience of our level of self-esteem.

It is interesting to note that such a perception may, or may not, be explicitly formulated in words within one’s mind. On some level, of course, it is surely about what thoughts and beliefs we hold. But the complete network of all those thoughts and beliefs that result in a good (or bad) self-esteem may not be immediately recognized.

In any case, it seems that the common denominator is that self-esteem is always accompanied by feelings, whether or not explicit thoughts (i.e., words or sentences, etc.) also are present in the mind at that time.

So we are then looking at two possibilities for the idea of “self-esteem as appreciation”:

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

Self-Esteem as an Opinion

Unlike the word “appreciation”, the word “opinion” is slightly less prone to be misunderstood. For when we are talking about people “having an opinion of themselves” we are usually talking about people who consciously have formulated (or “composed”) phrases, sentences, and stories about themselves that reflect how they think about themselves, in relation to their self-esteem evaluation.

Thus we might then label this type of self-esteem as an opinion, or as a sentence, or as a story. And ultimately we might also call it a “result”, since it is the product of an evaluation of one’s own self-esteem.

Unlike the inner core experience of feelings, an opinion might be expressed publicly, either by uttering it, or by writing it, or otherwise communicating it. So we will specify it more carefully as “a publicly expressed opinion”. Thus, we may understand “self-esteem as opinion” to mean:

– as a publicly expressed opinion

But we may also be expressing an opinion within ourselves, as a thought. So if we, in the “appreciation” list, replace the word “thoughts” with the word “opinions”, we can then understand “self-esteem as appreciation” to be either of these two things:

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

In any case, whether we are talking about internal or external opinions, it is always possible to modify them. Some people have a tendency to downplay their opinion about themselves, whereas other people try to find ways to improve their self-esteem.

Self-Esteem in Phrenology

Now let us move on to the “b” items in the definition of the word “self-esteem”. The Oxford editors mention two possible meanings:

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

Here I should mention a little something about the nowadays discredited “discipline” of phrenology, which once was praised in the academic world, and even taught in medical schools (Whitaker 2000, p. 188). One such instructor of Phrenology was the famous French physician Francois Joseph Victor Broussais, who taught at the University of Paris in 1836 (Whitaker 2000, p. 190).

But its followers were not just in the medical field. Also famous literary and cultural personalities joined the “movement”. What’s more, phrenology established itself also as a central doctrine for Herbert Spencer’s sociology and psychology, for Alfred Russel Wallace’s evolutionary science, and for Paul Broca’s anthropology (Weidman 2005, p. 1807b).

And the phrenology “movement” was not restricted to Europe either. It also inspired many Americans, including not only those in the medical field, but also thinkers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and others (Curti 1973, p. 23).

The figure below shows the general idea behind phrenology at work already on the front page of these typical publications. It essentially involves a mapping and categorization of the areas of the brain and the corresponding areas on the skull (click image to enlarge):

Here we see two early publications on phrenology: Phrenological Chart by an anonymous author (Boston, 1841) and Outlines of Phrenology by Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, M.D. (Glasgow, 1844).

Figure 1. Two early publications on phrenology: Outlines of Phrenology by Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, M.D. (Glasgow, 1844) and Phrenological Chart by an anonymous author (Boston, 1841).

This field of study was initiated in the late 1700s by Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, and was based upon the idea that, by analyzing the physical form of the head, one could predict a person’s personality, and produce various psychological diagnoses (Shapin 1982, p. 324).

So in the case of “self-esteem”, certain bumps on the head (or not) were thought to indicate a certain quality of that person’s self-esteem faculty (which was said to occupy a certain physical area of the brain), and thereby presumably indicate whether that person had a higher degree of self-esteem or a lower degree of self-esteem (cf. Swenson 2003, p. 270).

In the figure below we can see both a general area on the skull where “Selfish Sentiments” are located, as well as the more precise location of the “self-esteem” area (click image to enlarge):

In this drawing of a human skull (from Phrenological Chart by an anonymous author, Boston, 1841) we find that the location of the self-esteem area is on the top of the skull ('Self Este. 13').

Figure 2. The location of self-esteem. In the left picture we see the area ‘Selfish Sentiments’ at the top left of the skull. And in the right picture we see the self-esteem area itself as ‘Self Este. 13’. From Phrenological Chart by an anonymous author (Boston, 1841).

Note also that the SOED’s date in reference to the meanings of “self-esteem” related to the field of phrenology is 1815, which seems to fit quite well with the rise of phrenology in both the academic world and outside.


One might, perhaps, think: “What’s the use of looking in a newer edition of the SOED? Isn’t it just the same?”

But that is not the case. Some editors accentuate certain things, while other editors accentuate other things.

So when we now look at the SOED in its fifth edition, we find that the “self-esteem” entry actually has become much more compact (Trumble 2002, p. 2744b):

self-e’steem noun high regard for oneself, good opinion of oneself M17.”

A More Compact Self-Esteem Entry

First of all, it is no secret that “self-esteem” is a noun. So it is not very surprising to see that the fifth edition has added that information, compared to the third edition.

Another change is that any meanings related to phrenology have been removed. Supposedly the editors think that only the modern meaning is relevant. But if that is so, one might ask: Why then call this dictionary a work “on historical principles”, if you are neglecting historical meanings?

Yet another change is that an exact date is no longer present. So the 1657 date given in the third edition is nowhere to be found in the fifth edition. Instead a more general date has been given as “M17”, which stands for “mid-seventeenth century” — a time period which is specified (in the Guide in Volume 1) as 1630-1669 (Trumble 2002, p. xvi, Section 4.8).

As for the two definitions, it seems that they are more or less identical to the first item of the 1973 edition.


So in our travels here in “Oxford English Dictionary Land”, we have seen that the most comprehensive article is found in the 1973 edition, and not in the 2002 edition.

And we have also seen that we basically have five main meanings of the word “self-esteem”, as derived from the SOED. These can be seen in the figure below (click image to enlarge):

This diagram presents a hierarchical typology (version 1) of the five different meanings of the word 'self-esteem', as derived from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Figure 3. The hierarchical typology (version 1) of the five different meanings of the word ‘self-esteem’, as derived from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.


As we have seen, the word “self-esteem” can be understood in five basic ways: as a perception using feelings only, as a perception using feelings and opinions, as a publicly expressed opinion, as a mental faculty, and as a physical ‘bump’ on the head.

Chris Bocay


  1. It is interesting to see that the Oxford editors (of the 1973 edition) are speaking of the word “self-esteem” as a “favourable” appreciation or opinion. But this does not really work in practice. For in ordinary language we are mentioning self-esteem both in phrases such as “high self-esteem” and in phrases such as “low self-esteem”. And that would amount to saying “high favourable appreciation” or “low favourable appreciation”. In other words, the definition of self-esteem should probably not contain a word such as “favourable”. For that word, in itself, indicates the level of that self-esteem. Thus, a better formulation of “self-esteem” would be, say, “an estimation of one’s [level of, or degree of] worth”. And then, by adding the adjective “high” or “low” (as in “high self-esteem” or “low self-esteem”) one can indicate the level or degree of that worth. So the resulting “equivalent” definition for “high self-esteem” would be “a high estimation of one’s worth”, and for “low self-esteem” it would be “a low estimation of one’s worth”.


  • Anonymous (1841), Phrenological Chart, Presenting an Outline of Phrenology: The Names and Explanation of the Different Primitive Faculties, an Analysis of Their Relative Degrees of Development, with the Phrenological Character and Talents of… Boston: J. N. Bang. [Link to book]
  • Curti, Merle (1973), “Psychological Theories in American Thought” in Philip P. Wiener, ed., Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. Volume 4: Psychological Ideas in Antiquity to Zeitgeist. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. [Link to book]
  • Little, William, et al. (1973), The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Third Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Link to book]
  • Shapin, Steven A. (1982), “Phrenology” in W. F. Bynum, E. J. Browne, and Roy Porter, eds., Dictionary of the History of Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. [Link to book]
  • Spurzheim, J. G. (1844), Outlines of Phrenology. Second English Edition. Revised and Reprinted from the Fourth American Edition, Published at Boston, 1836. Glasgow: J. & G. Goyder, Phrenological Institution, 104, Brunswick Street; et al. [Link to book]
  • Swenson, Leland C. (2003), “Brain specialization” in Nancy A. Piotrowski, ed., Magill’s Encyclopedia of Social Science: Psychology. Volume 1: Ability tests – Cultural competence. Pasadena, CA and Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press, Inc. [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]
  • Weidman, Nadine (2005), “Phrenology” in Maryanne Cline Horowitz, ed., New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Volume 4: Machiavellism to Phrenology. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale. [Link to book]
  • Whitaker, Harry A. (2000), “Phrenology” in Alan E. Kazdin, ed., Encyclopedia of Psychology. Volume 6: Optimism and Pessimism – Rapaport. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; and Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Link to book]

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First published: Fri 8 Apr 2022
Last revised: Sat 13 May 2023

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