Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
For many, cynical seems like such the default setting these days that I bet don’t even need to mention any of the baffling statements or ridiculous events of the recent past to illustrate the point — you’ve already formed a list in your mind. And though cynicism is a common player in modern social discourse, that word cynicism, along with cynic and cynical, is a rather odd one in the English language.
The word cynic literally means “dog-like” and goes back to the Greek word kyōn “dog.” Any cynophile (dog-lover) will tell you that dogs are the least cynical of domesticated animals, so what’s the connection?
It’s an old one:
In the mid-5th century B.C., Antisthenes — like his contemporary Plato, a student of Socrates — taught a philosophy that valued the pursuit of virtue above pleasure, and that virtue was enough to create happiness. According to Antisthenes’ teachings (later expounded and exemplified by Diogenes of Sinope), virtue was to be found in an ascetic lifestyle, self-sufficiency, and actions that align with the natural world. This meant shunning anything that separated man from what came naturally, including most personal possessions, houses, and even the socially determined concept of civility. A good reputation was also considered an unvirtuous social construct — and a bad reputation was therefore virtuous and desirable.
Because Antisthenes wasn’t a “pure” Athenian, he was not allowed to teach in Athens itself. Instead, he held court in a gymnasium outside of Athens called the Kynosarge, Greek for “the Gray Dog.” It’s likely because of the name of this location that his followers were first called kynikos, “dog-like,” which was Latinized in later texts as Cynic.
But the connection to dogs was also a useful metaphor for the philosophy itself, because a wild dog lived the type of life that Cynics aspired to. As noted in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Cynic once meant “one who lives a dog’s life: shamelessly, and without any settled home.” That puts a nice, positive spin on it, but contemporary Greeks weren’t so enthusiastic about them. Cynical renunciation of wealth, pleasure, and so-called civility in favor of what is natural could manifest itself in a number of crude acts — public urination being a minor example. Cynics would also question people’s virtue, accusing them of acting solely for personal pleasure.
There’s a fine line between wandering sage and dirty tramp, and for many Athenians, the Cynics spent too much time on the wrong side of it. So, to most common people, Cynic was an apt title because adherents expressed not a wild dog’s freedom and ease but its demeanor.
It was this capital-C Cynic — referring to Antisthenes’ followers — that we start to find in English writing in the mid-16th century, but in fairly short order, English speakers began using the word to describe any sneering, incessant fault-finder, and eventually the proper Cynic gave way to the common cynic.
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