The Meaning of Cynical: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever been curious about the definition of cynical? This guide will provide you with all of the information you need on the word cynical, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

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What does the word cynical mean?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged English Dictionary and Dictionary, the word cynical (pronounced ˈsɪnɪk ə l) is an adjective that describes a person who is distrustful of human nature and others’ motives, or someone who is generally pessimistic. Someone who is a cynic believes that people are inherently motivated by selfish desires, and that no one person is inherently good. Related words to cynical include the nouns cynic, cynicism and cynicalness, and the adverb form of cynical, cynically. Someone who has a cynical attitude or cynical view of the world may be depressing to be around. Cynical people are often viewed as “downers.” This term was first used by Greek philosophers who believed that people only ever acted in their own self-interest.

The word cynical also exists in many different languages and can be used to describe people who believe that humans are motivated by selfishness. You may notice that some of these words look very similar to the word cynical, ro are cognates for the word cynical. This is because these words have the same root or origin. Words of the same origin often look and sound similar to one another. This list of translations for the word cynical is provided by Word Sense

  • Serbo-Croatian: cìničan‎
  • Armenian: ցինիկ‎
  • Russian: цини́чный‎
  • German: zynisch‎
  • Bokmål: kynisk‎
  • Finnish: kyyninen‎
  • Spanish: receloso‎
  • Nynorsk: kynisk‎
  • Dutch: cynisch‎
  • Turkish: küçümseyici‎
  • Swedish: cynisk‎
  • Scottish Gaelic: dranndanach‎, searbhasach‎
  • Romanian: cinic‎
  • Malay: sinis‎
  • Chinese – Mandarin: 玩世不恭‎ (wánshìbùgōng)
  • Portuguese: cínico‎
  • Danish: kynisk‎
  • Czech: cynický‎ (masc.)
  • Bulgarian: циничен‎ (ciníčen)
  • French: cynique‎
  • Italian: cinico‎
  • Maori: pūhohe‎
  • Greek: κυνικός‎, ωμός‎ (masc.)
  • Japanese: 皮肉‎

What is the origin of the word cynical?

According to Etymonline, the words cynical and the noun form cynic have been used since the 1630s and 1550s, respectively. Cynic is used to mean someone who believes in the ancient sect of philosophy of Antistheses. This is the Latinized form of the Greek kynikos, which meant a follower of Antisthenes. This word literally meant dog-like, and was formed from the Greek kyōn, which is the genitive kynos, meaning “dog.” This is supposed to be a reference to the coarseness that the philosophers believe is present in life, which is figuratively similar to a dog’s hair or personality. It could also come from Kynosarge, which means The Gray Dog. This was the name of the gymnasium which was outside of ancient Athens and was used by people who were not pure Athenian. Here, Antisthenes taught his philosophy and teachings, and was a pupil of Socrates. The word has been used more generally to eman some sneering or sarcastic person since the 1590s, and used as an adjective since the 1630s.

How can the word cynical be used in a sentence?

The word cynical is very common and can be sued in many different ways to describe people who are pessimistic or who believe that people only act in their own self interest. In this example, Riley and Fran have been working on their history project for hours and are nowhere near finished.

Fran: This is pointless. We are never going to finish in time. We should just give up now and accept failure.

Riley: Fran, you do not  need to be acting in such a cynical way right now. We can do this. This project isn’t due for another six hours, and we have already made great progress. We just need to buckle down and get to work. We’ve got this.

Fran: There is no point. It is just going to look rushed. We’re going tog et a bad grade anyway, we might as well get some sleep.

Riley: If you are going to continue to be an unhelpful downer, then go to bed. But I’m going to keep working. And I can just tell Mr. Edwards that you only helped on half the project.

Here, Riley uses the word cynical to describe Fran’s poor attitude about the state and future of their history project.

What are synonyms and antonyms for the word cynical?

There are many different words that have the same meaning as the word cynical. These are known as synonyms. Synonyms are very useful to know if you are looking to expand your vocabulary or avoid repeating yourself. This list of synonyms for the word cynical is provided by Thesaurus

  • ironic
  • derisive
  • scoffing
  • misanthropical
  • sardonic
  • suspicious
  • doubtful
  • contemptuous
  • sneering
  • unbelieving
  • sarcastic
  • skeptical
  • nonbelieving
  • mocking
  • misanthropic
  • wry
  • pessimistic
  • scornful

There are also many different words that have the opposite meaning as the word cynical. These words are known as antonyms. Antonyms are also very useful to know if you want to expand upon your knowledge of the English language or grammar. This list of antonyms for the word cynical is also provided by Thesaurus

  • buoyant
  • on top of world
  • cheerful
  • high
  • trusting
  • promising
  • rose-colored
  • happy
  • encouraged
  • confident
  • bright
  • ray of sunshine
  • positive
  • assured
  • hoping
  • sunny
  • merry
  • optimistic
  • utopian
  • hopeful
  • expectant
  • on cloud nine
  • cheering
  • keeping the faith
  • sanguine
  • rosy
  • idealistic

Overall, the word cynical is an adjective that is used to mean someone who is pessimistic or who believes that people only act for the good of themselves and not of others. A cynical person believes that people are only ever in things for themselves and that no one truly cares about the wellbeing of others. 

Sources:

  1. https://www.wordsense.eu/cynical/
  2. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/cynical
  3. https://www.etymonline.com/word/cynic#:~:text=cynic%20(n.),kwon%2D%20%22dog%22).
  4. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/optimistic
  5. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cynical#:~:text=cynical%2C%20misanthropic%2C%20pessimistic%20mean%20deeply,human%20beings%20and%20their%20society.
  6. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/cynical