Being Meanspirited Doesn’t Mean You’re Being Mean – a language conundrum

When I was a kid, yelling “You’re a meanie!” was a useful epithet. It captured the anger and frustration and powerlessness one felt and hurled all of it at the person being a meanie.

To which the meanie would commonly reply, “I am not!”

Oh the joys of childhood days.

The Smallness of Meanness

As I got older I started hearing people describe a person or action as “meanspirited”, which I took to be a grown up way of calling someone a meanie.

That’s not what it means.

We often call someone mean when they are acting out of spite or a desire to hurt another person. And if someone accuses us of this we might respond “I didn’t mean to be mean”, meaning we meant to be kinder but somehow weren’t.

To be meanspirited means something else, though.

Adj. – petty; small-minded; ungenerous: a meanspirited man, unwilling to forgive. …

Word Origin and History for meanspirited … 1690s, from mean + spirited. Ancient Greek had the same image in mikropsykhos.

I can be meanspirited when acting in a way not at all the same as what most people mean by being mean. If I act small-mindedly (as shown in the Greek mikropsykhos noted in the definition) rather than generously then I most closely match the original definition of being meanspirited.

I don’t mean to be meanspirited. And now that the word’s meaning is expanding to include actions that are cruel and spiteful as well as those that are petty and ungenerous, I really don’t mean it.

Know what I mean?


One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. (Proverbs 11:24-25.)


[This is the first of three posts on language. Tomorrow we’ll explore whether there’s an appropriate language for speaking the gospel, and Thursday is a grammar tip on commas.]


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16 Responses to Being Meanspirited Doesn’t Mean You’re Being Mean – a language conundrum

  1. “…if someone accuses us of this we might respond “I didn’t mean to be mean”…”

    Great! Now I have The Mentals’ song running through my head 😉

  2. patbadstibner says:

    Tim I think that your definitions are obviously right, but the environment, background, surroundings, situations and personalities involved may indeed cause the words to appear to be different to different people. Three examples would come to mind. In one world a man telling another man to stop his foolishness, before he smacks him may be neither mean or meanspirited, For indeed he believes he showed kindness in not smacking him first. Yet, someone looking into that situation without the same background, environmental factors may indeed see the man as mean and meanspirited. My wife sees any type of confrontation, even in cases were such cases may be deemed necessary such as publically addressing doctrinal error as both mean and meanspirited, yet there may be some who believe there is scriptural basis for such 🙂 Final example, surely some would consider a public addressing of someones failure by any leader as both mean and meanspirited, especially being called idiots. Yet, we find this very thing happening in Luke 9:37-41, where Christ publically wonders how long he is going to have to tolerate what basically amounts to these idiots, outloud, after their failures. We looking back on the scenario see this as Christ in his deity, perhaps. Yet, if my wife had been standing there, she surely would have taken exception.

    Mean in words, actions, attitude in all three of these cases. Meanspirited by the very definition you gave as just not giving in, forgiving it and letting it blow over and moving on, as my wife might feel about certain situations. I think they are broad termed words that are way too often painted with too narrow a brush. Just my thoughts and like all thoughts, they are a dime a dozen.

    • Tim says:

      Under the definitions of mean and meanspirited I’ve used in this post, I don’t see those definitions applying to the scenarios you posit. What one person calls a discussion and another calls a confrontation doesn’t turn the discussion into a confrontation. It just means those two people are probably not going to be able to have much success interacting with one another.

      Also, to say that Jesus called people idiots misstates the facts of that Luke 9 passage, and anyone who tells you they see the passage that way needs gentle correction. Calling the people unbelieving and perverse is a moral judgment Jesus was authorized to make, while idiot suggests merely insulting their intelligence. Jesus never did the latter to anyone, ever.

      • patbadstibner says:

        Thanks Tim, left some thoughts to ponder, some questions to ask and my daily feeding of appreciation for the beauty of grace.

  3. Jeannie says:

    You make a great distinction between these 2 words, Tim. Like you suggest, I think of “mean” as being a bully and “mean-spirited” as being miserly, in either money or heart. The elder brother in the prodigal son parable strikes me as the ultimate mean-spirited person — and I suppose most Pharisees would qualify as well. To go outside the Bible, I think of the Grinch and Scrooge as being both mean and mean-spirited.

    By contrast, there is this fellow, who is “never mean”:

    • Tim says:

      Grinch and Scrooge are great examples of the two being distinct and acting in concert, Jeannie.

      And thanks for linking that post about Jonathan seeing everyone as a friend to enjoy and encourage. It’s one of my favorites.

  4. I Can.Not.Wait. for Thursday’s grammar post!!!!!

  5. “…another withholds unduly…” I’m really glad for “unduly” in this verse. If I understand the meaning, that means sometimes withholding is appropriate?

    It’s easy for me to slip into meanspiritedness. May I discern the difference by the power of the Holy Spirit.

  6. Arun s says:

    Where we play Pickleball, an extremely popular sport we participate several times a week. It’s a pretty closely knit group and everyone is welcome for free to engage in our sport. Well one day a duck (pretty common in the area w/a lake etc.) had built a nest under the bleachers in the shade. For three weeks or better we put water for it since there were 15 eggs the other day and the duck never seemed to leave. It tended to its eggs as any mother duck would do. Well, regrettably today we noticed someone had vandalized the nest and the eggs were shattered and scattered over a large area. Obviously the mother duck was gone as well. Hopefully still alive we wandered around to find her. No luck! It was extremely upsetting to know someone could be that mean spirited and callous. I mean are these people so out of touch with reality?
    Even the groundskeepers were quite shocked that anyone would stoop that low.
    That’s all, I just wanted to vent and recall what the great Stephen Hawkins has said. This planet of ours is not going to be here for us for another 100 yrs. if we continue at this rate. It will regurgitate and not be able to provide essential life sustaining basics such as the air we breathe and the water we drink. We take everything for granted w/o so much as caring and giving back. Not too smart! Resources such as these have been drastically depleted and consequently we will have to look for another planet to relocate to. The vicious cycle may very well continue there as well unless we change our ways and take stock of nature and pay it back with respect and caring.
    Not much else to say in this regard unfortunately! Cheers!

    • Tim says:

      The killing of those ducklings still developing is heartbreaking. The light in this is how you and your friends, along with the grounds keepers, had tried to do the right thing.

      Blessings on you all.

  7. Lynn Kirby Everest says:

    This is so good Tim – – quick and easy to read packed full of happy wisdom! And a snappy ditty to boot! 🙂

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