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The word Nihilism comes from the latin word 'nihil' which means 'nothing'. It was coined by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862), to describe the views he attributed to young intellectual critics of the Tsarist regime and feudal society. The broad idea is that traditional morals and relations of authority are based on falsehood. Whether this claim actually means believing in 'nothing' depends on whether one believes that traditional morals and authorities are the only morals and authorities that can exist. Turgenev was apparently responding in part to the views of the novelist and critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who had definite beliefs in natural science and utilitarian ethics.

Belief in nothing is now attributed to heretics, subversives, and dropouts of all sorts.