I would abandon the idea of 'means' altogether. Even when it supposedly works, it's still doesn't mean the same thing. Simply put, in the context of "The word XXX refers to...," it just means something like 'is/are in reference to,' or 'pertains to.' For instance,
"Emotions refer to feelings of joy, sorrow, or fear, etc."
And no, you can't use any "refers to" any place where you'd use "means." Simple example:
"Being human means making mistakes."
To say "Being human refers to making mistakes." changes the meaning of the sentence drastically. So, don't use "refer to" when you really mean "means."