cynical

The Cynic school of philosophy, founded by Antisthenes in the latter part of the 5th century B.C.E., taught that human fulfillment is derived from virtue, the essence of which lies in self-control, independence, and resistance to conventional values such as wealth and social status. The name, which comes from the Greek word for dog, may have been derived from Cynosarges (meaning white dog), the name of the Athenian gymnasium at which Antisthenes taught. In any case, Diogenes, the most colorful of the Cynics, was known as "the dog" for his living habits and demeanor. Alexander the Great was apparently so intrigued by his reputation that he sought Diogenes out in order to reward his virtue. Upon finding him lying in a public tub, he asked what services he might provide to the philosopher, who replied that he would be happy enough if Alexander would refrain from standing between him and the sun. On another occasion, when Diogenes was rebuked for masturbating in public, he simply observed that he wished he could appease his hunger as easily by rubbing his belly.

Until recently, English usage of the word cynical was tied closely to its Greek origin and the practices of Diogenes, as reflected in Johnson's 1755 definition:

Having the qualities of a dog; brutal; snarling; satirical.
Contemporary usage, on the other hand, seems to be rooted in the later cynics' bitter criticism of competing philosophies, especially of the Cyrenaic school, which advocated the pursuit of pleasure and immediate gratification as the key to happiness. Thus, a cynical person is now generally understood to be one who is disposed to find fault in others and is contemptuously distrustful of human nature, especially one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest.

Webster's New International 1st and 2nd editions report both of these usages, listing an equivalent of Johnson's definition as the primary meaning; Webster's 3rd and other contemporary dictionaries generally emphasize the newer usage.

But there are still two other interpretations of the word that have recently found popular use, both of which are documented in the 4th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. One of these is merely a careless generalization of the second definition discussed above:

Negative or pessimistic, as from world-weariness: a cynical view of the average voter's intelligence.
This is an instance of the phenomenon that Fowler called slipshod extension, i.e., a failure to observe "the habit of paying all words the compliment of respecting their peculiarities."

The other new meaning is somewhat more disturbing:

Selfishly or callously calculating: showed a cynical disregard for the safety of his troops in his efforts to advance his reputation.
This usage seems to be especially popular among media correspondents—in fact, it turned up twice in one week on the op-ed page of the New York Times:
  • In my first column after 9/11, I mentioned something everyone with contacts on Capitol Hill already knew: that just days after the event, the exploitation of the atrocity for partisan political gain had already begun. In response, I received a torrent of outraged mail. At a time when the nation was shocked and terrified, the thought that our leaders might be that cynical was too much to bear.
    -- Paul Krugman, Exploiting the Atrocity, NYT, 9/12/03

  • But then France has never been interested in promoting democracy in the modern Arab world, which is why its pose as the new protector of Iraqi representative government—after being so content with Saddam's one-man rule—is so patently cynical.
    -- Thomas L. Friedman, Our War With France, NYT, 9/18/03
The origin of this abuse is unclear. It may have developed as an extension of Johnson's canine definition, as it is arguably consistent with one established sense of the word currish. It may also have been suggested by Johnson himself in his often quoted letter to Lord Chesterfield (see also Boswell's account):
I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.
But Johnson's true intention here, if not obvious from the context of his remark, must be clear from his own published definition, as reproduced above. More likely, the new usage is derived from the other accepted meaning through the blunder of confusing subject (he who takes the cynical view) with object (him of whom the view is taken). In any case, it is without etymological or historical foundation. Moreover, the resulting semantic overload, which allows, for example, the cynical view of mankind according to which the nature of mankind is cynical, is untenably awkward.