Sunday 23 August 1998
It was Diogenes, his disciple, who gave Antisthenes's movement a bad name by snarling at passers-by. They decided that the word must have come from kuon, the Greek for a dog - an early instance of false etymology, because actually it came from the Cynosarges, the building Antisthenes taught in.
Anyway, "cynical" has now become the twin brother of "callous", the popular journalist's word for anyone who has ever murdered a child or mugged a pensioner. There was never any doubt about "callous", which is the adjective from "callus", a bit of hardened skin, and simply means insensitive. But "cynical" has done a smart about-turn. Instead of being a word for people who mistrust the motives of others, which is what it was in ancient Greece, it's now the one we choose for those whose motives we ourselves mistrust.
Again, if it was anyone's fault Diogenes is to blame. In our Renaissance a cynic was an abstainer, a sort of 16th-century Stafford Cripps. But even then people were already beginning to forget Antisthenes and to think of a cynic as a curmudgeon, or just a nasty man, a don't-give-a-damn character. One can see how sooner or later it was going to go the full 360 degrees.
Under "cynical" the Oxford English Dictionary's second (1989) edition had "now esp. disposed to disbelieve in human sincerity or goodness", which, as I say, is the reverse of what the Standard meant by it. But the smart New Oxford Dictionary of English gets it right: "Concerned only with one's own interests."
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Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What marriage would look like if we actually followed the Bible
- 2 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 3 'Heartbreaking' Syria orphan photo wasn't taken in Syria and not of orphan
- 4 Bob Geldof offers to take four refugee families into his home 'immediately' as he condemns humanitarian crisis as a ‘f**king disgrace'
- 5 Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
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The Lobster trailer: Colin Farrell has 45 days to find a lover or he'll be turned into an animal
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 250,000 back our campaign
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees