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."
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Reyhaneh Jabbari: Iran due to execute woman for murder of her alleged attempted rapist
- 2 Expert urges cat lovers to own just one animal each
- 3 Car tax disc changes: Two days to go - and they affect you much more than just not displaying a piece of paper
- 4 The Simpsons death: Creator Al Jean would 'kill himself' before character like Homer or Lisa
- 5 British man raped while urinating in bushes at Oktoberfest beer festival in Germany
The Simpsons death: Creator Al Jean would 'kill himself' before character like Homer or Lisa
Cilla, episode 3, ITV - review: Ed Stoppard steals the limelight as Beatles manager Brian Epstein
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2: The Green Legend will be Netflix's first original movie
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'
The Jungle Book: A tale as old as time
Isis, we are told, is a 'clear and dangerous threat to our way of life'. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it
Exclusive: 'Putin's Russia has been my biggest regret,' says Nato's outgoing Secretary General
'Women, walk wherever you want' posters taken down in Stamford Hill following 'unacceptable' signs separating men and women
There’s no excuse for Dave Lee Travis’s behaviour, but we need to keep a sense of proportion
Mark Reckless becomes second Tory MP to defect to Ukip in a month
Should gay sex be illegal? 16% of Britons think so
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