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I am interested in the difference between these two seemingly synonymous terms.

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3 Answers 3

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"Egotism" is an inflated sense of one's importance; it's being conceited or vain.

EGOTISM at Merriam-Webster

1a: excessive use of the first person singular personal pronoun 1b: the practice of talking about oneself too much 2: an exaggerated sense of self-importance

The egotist feels superior to others physically, intellectually or in some other way.

"Egoism" is a preoccupation with oneself, but not necessarily feeling superior to others.

EGOISM at Merriam-Webster

1a: a doctrine that individual self-interest is the actual motive of all conscious action
1b: a doctrine that individual self-interest is the valid end of all actions
2: excessive concern for oneself with or without exaggerated feelings of self-importance

The egoist puts himself and his own needs before everyone else.

Egotist: I'm the smartest, prettiest and most talented.

Egoist: It's all about me regardless of how I compare to everyone else.

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Egotism refers to talking about oneself — that's what meanings 1a and 1b are (and I suspect 2 too…). –  ShreevatsaR Dec 26 '10 at 5:48

"Egoism" would be the term regularly formed of its Latin/Greek parts: ego + -ismus/-ismos. The t in "egotism" was probably added by analogy to some -ismes in French that have an intrusive t, which can be inserted between vowels in French.

The Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé and the Oxford English Dictionary seem to agree that the word was probably coined in English, in the colony of Port-Royal around 1714*. Since the intrusive t is not a native phonological instrument in English, it may be considered a Gallicism, not a borrowing from French; for that reason, some call "egotism" a malformation. Others say that such an attack on the intrusive t is unfair and that it should be accepted as English. The choice is a matter of style and of no great importance.

To some, "egotism" means being self-centred, whereas "egoism" is restricted to philosophy (solipsism etc.); however, it seems that this distinction is so blurred that both can be used for self-centredness. I believe this distinction is ignored by most writers.

*) OED, on egotism:

If the statement of Addison (quot. 1714) can be trusted, the word seems to have been invented by some of the Port-Royalists to range with the terms of rhetoric denoting ‘figures of speech’ and the like.

TLFi, on égotisme:

(1714, ADDISON, Spect. no 562, p. 3 ds NED : the Gentlemen of Port-Royal ... branded this form of writing in the first person with the name of an egotism)

TLFi, on égoïsme:

Étymol. et Hist. 1755 (Encyclop. t. 5 : Mm. de Port-Royal ont généralement banni de leurs écrits l'usage de parler d'eux-mêmes à la première personne [...] Pour en marquer leur éloignement, ils l'ont tourné en ridicule sous le nom d'égoïsme, adopté depuis dans notre langue)

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@Kosmonaut: You're right, that was not very clear. I edited it: is this better? Or do you disagree? –  Cerberus Dec 26 '10 at 6:05
This is more clear, but the t is not redundant as much as (probably) a phonological means of avoiding [vowel hiatus](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiatus_(linguistics)). French often uses t to avoid vowel hiatus (e.g. "va-t-il" instead of "va il"). Egotism came around first and was probably influenced by the French égotisme, while egoism came around later and was a direct borrowing from Latin parts. –  Kosmonaut Dec 26 '10 at 6:17
@Kosmonaut: Okay, I researched it a bit more, as I simply took my judgement of egotism from Fowler. It appears that egotism was coined in English, from which the French adopted it later. For that reason, I think Fowler has a point, especially since egoism is probably only a few decades younger. See the note in my Answer above. Even so, this is merely a subjective inclination, not a fanatical condemnation. Besides, it doesn't matter a great deal. –  Cerberus Dec 28 '10 at 3:47
That's fine if egotism is an English creation; it looks like it really was influenced by French, just not by the word égotisme itself. The main reason for my comment was to point out that the t wasn't just a random thing coming from nowhere — there was a point to it. Anyway, you're right, it's not crucial to the question (but I think it is interesting!). –  Kosmonaut Dec 28 '10 at 5:36
@Kosmonaut: OK, you are absolutely right about that; I was too hasty. Incidentally, I am still occasionally puzzled by French tolerance of hiatus: sometimes they will jump through hoops to counter it; at other times they simply allow it, even where liaison or the intrusive t might work. It doesn't look like a completely consistent system to me... but I am probably missing some aspects of it. –  Cerberus Dec 31 '10 at 2:18

First occurrences of ‘egoism/egoist’ and ‘egotism/egotist’

Leaving aside any consideration of their intended meaning, it seems clear from the following Ngram chart that egotist (yellow line) and egotism (red line) are older terms than egoist (green line) and egoism (blue line):

Merriam-Webster’s Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) lists a first-occurrence date for egotism of 1714—presumably referring to this item by Joseph Addison in The Spectator (July 2, 1714):

The most violent Egotism which I have met with in the Course of my Reading, is that of Cardinal Woolsey, Ego & Rex meus, I and my King ; as perhaps the most eminent Egotist that ever appeared in the World, was Montagne the Author of the celebrated Essays. This lively old Gascon has woven all his bodily Infirmities into his Works, and after having spoken of the Faults or Virtues of any other Man, immediately publishes to the World how it stands with himself in that Particular. …

I cannot here forbear mentioning a Tribe of Egotists for whom I have always had a mortal Aversion, I mean the Authors of Memoirs, who are never mentioned in any work but their own, and who raise all their Productions out of this single Figure of Speech.

This excerpt shows egotism being used in a way that comports with both its “excessive use of the first person singular personal pronoun” sense and its “practice of talking about oneself too much” sense, which the Eleventh Collegiate breaks out as definitions 1a and 1b of the word.

The Eleventh Collegiate dates egoism to 1800 and egoist to 1879—although the latter dating seems quite odd, given that egoist appears as an entry in Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which, even more peculiarly, doesn’t provide an entry for egoism:

EGOIST, n. A name given to certain followers of Des Cartes, who held the opinion that they were uncertain of every thing except their own existence and the operations and ideas of their own minds. Reid

The “Reid” cited at the end of this definition is presumably the philosopher Thomas Reid. In “Of the Powers We Have by Means of our External Senses,” in Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785), Reid says this:

I can find no principle in Berkeley’s system, which affords me even probable ground to conclude, that there are other intelligent beings, like myself, in the relations of father, brother, friend, or fellow-citizen. I am left alone, as the only creature of God in the universe, in that forlorn state of egoism, into which it is said some of the disciples of Des Cartes were brought by his philosophy. ...

He [“Des Cartes”] rejected the doctrine of species or ideas coming from objects ; but still maintained, that what we immediately perceive is not the external object, but an idea or image of it in our mind. This led some of his disciples into egoism, and to disbelieve the existence of every creature in the universe but themselves and their own ideas.

This passage seems quite relevant to the definition in the 1828 Webster’s dictionary, except that it refers (twice) to egoism, and not at all to egoist. In any case, the 1785 publication date of Reid’s book antedates the first-occurrence date of 1800 in the Eleventh Collegiate by 15 years. Reid died in 1796.

As we saw in the excerpt from The Spectator, egotist debuted in written English a scant 30 words after egotism did. But egoist appears to have taken its time to catch up with egoism. The first Google Books match for egoist is from a letter to the editors of The Medical and Physical Journal (February 1, 1805):

More ‘Cases of smallpox subsequent to vaccination, by William Goldson,’ have just been offered to the world. How is it that this gentleman still continues to keep groping in the dark, when he has himself been the cause of so much light breaking out in every quarter? How is it that he yet remains so insensible of the immense importance of his subject, as to think of taking up his own and his reader’s time in adjusting how far those who have written on the subject have been gentlemanly, &c.? He says, moreover, the simple egoist, "Those who know me can best appreciate the purity of my intentions."

Also early to the mark is James Lawrence, The Empire of the Nair; or, The Rights of Women (1811):

During courtship, each party being attentive to appear amiable in the eyes of the other, it is difficult to discover the real character of either. They are in masquerade ; they are acting a comedy, in which perhaps the knave and dupe are united in the same character. The family despot is humble and submissive, the vainest egoist forgets his own merits, the sensualist conceals his irregularity, the sloven affects the beau, the sportsman prefers his mistress to his horse. The character of the bride is equally impenetrable.


At last a vacancy presented itself ; the young Count of Fitzabad, chamberlain to the Samorin, and one of the greatest coxcombs of the court, was the lover of the Baroness of Madura, who two years before had received the green girdle. They both loved as much as their tempers would allow ; he being a vain egoist — she a thoughtless giddy creature, who never would have loved, had she never heard love mentioned by others.

Another early (and highly enjoyable) instance is from Delia, “The Ladies versus the Gentlemen](http://books.google.com/books?id=ALgCAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA205&dq=%22egoist%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=XcdzVJ6OFI7ooASAmIAw&ved=0CBwQ6AEwADge#v=onepage&q=%22egoist%22&f=false),” in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (1823):

Upon creatures such as these “cupboard lovers,” feeling and affection would be flung away. The cold, the heartless, and the speculating, are alone safe in their society ; and if in a game of “diamond cut diamond,” a rich young egoist is now and then “brought down at a long shot,” or enticed by a scientific combination of female wit, matronly cunning, and fraternal surveillance, into committing matrimony, where is the mighty harm? According to all codes, murder in self-defence is justifiable. Then in the name of mercy, leave us poor girls, leave us poor girls to be “killing” in our own way, and do not insist upon a candour and sensibility, which, meeting no return, is at least as idiotical as it is innocent.

I don't know what to make of the Eleventh Collegiate’s first occurrence date of 1879 for egoist, in light of the various occurrences of the term going back to 1805.

Examples of published writings that distinguish between the two terms

One early article that distinguishes between egoism and egotism occurs in George Hardinge, “A short Critique on Madame de Steal’s Writings, in a letter to the late John W-----, Esq.,” in The Miscellaneous Works in Prose and Verse of George Hardinge, Esq. (1818):

My dear Friend,

I am afraid you will think me an Egotist (though I hope you will never think me an Egoist) if I give you my thoughts of Madame de Stael ; but, in our friendly intercourse, it may, I trust, be received as no impertinent air, if I confess to you that I think her much too fond of antithesis, too sententious, too refined, and in her metaphysics too visionary. I also think her Translations of Poetry, with some brilliant exceptions, heavy in hand. Having said this, I feel myself a most grateful enthusiast for the beauty, the genius, and the agrément of at least half the work.

N.B. There is just one phrase in her quite new to me. It is the word juste, used adverbially as we use the word just (as for example—“it is just as I told you,” &c.)—though I perceive the word is good French in that sense, because I see it in Antonini ; but it is not familiar to me. {Exit the Egotist.}

From Milicent Shinn, “Modern Ethics and Egotism,” in The Californian and Overland Monthly (October 1882):

In these latter days, the place of the world, the flesh, and the devil seems to have been pretty completely usurped by that quality or group of qualities known to ethical exposition as egotism or egoism. ...

As between the two words, “egotism” and “egoism,” that are found the most satisfactory for naming him when he is charged by name, the form “egoism” has probably the more claim, not only to etymological correctness, but also to scientific exactness. For “egotism” is a word that has belonged to a less analytic past, which knew no other phase of self-absorption than demonstrative self-esteem, and narrowed the meaning of the word accordingly. And though we now know that this demonstrative self-esteem is only one exhibition—and that far from an essential one—of a vastly more far-reaching quality, the word is not to the general hearer quite freed of association with its limited meaning. On the other hand, the form “egoism” has not made its way. It has a touch of pedantry and affectation ; and, on the whole, makes less progress toward establishing itself in the language than the already established form “egotism,” makes toward covering the whole ground in meaning.

Likewise, from Charles Bardeen, Verbal Pitfalls: A Manual of 1500 Words Commonly Misused (1883):

EGOIST (for egotist), [citing Alfred Ayres, The Verbalist (1882)]. Wb. [Webster] gives egotism as his last definition of egoism. Properly the egoist is selfishly thinking only of himself; while the egotist is shallow, talking too much of himself.

From James Walker, The Philosophy of Egoism (1905):

If Egoism were the same and as narrow in meaning as egotistic, of course the question would have to be differently answered. But egotism bears the same relation to Egoism as the term selfishness, used with purpose in the derogatory syllable, bears to my newly coined term selfiness ; hence we will set it down that some constructive use for the term altruistic is not of necessity excluded from Egoistic philosophy.

From Theodore Bernstein, The Careful Writer (1965):

EGOISM, EGOTISM Egoism refers to a tendency to view matters as they bear upon oneself. Egotism refers to the practice of referring excessively to oneself in discourse. Fowler thought he saw signs that egoism was ousting egotism even in the popular senses. The converse seems to be true, so that egoism is now confined largely to philosophical contexts.

From John Kenrick, Cohan Bio: Part II (2002, rev. 2014):

Cohan had always known how extraordinary his talents were. Some considered him an egotist – he just saw himself as being invariably right. Cohan biographer John McCabe offers this view --

Cohan was not an egotist in the usual sense; he was inescapably an egoist, this in large measure deriving from his life pattern and full commitment to the theatre. A standard dictionary definition of "egotist" is "A conceited, boastful person." An "egoist" is defined as "A self-centered or selfish person." The words that describe Cohan accurately are "self-centered" which he was at times to almost appalling degree. . . Cohan's egoism was born of the need to succeed and it was nurtured by the circumstances of his taking on the duties of a man and a manager while he was still a boy, a boy forced to miss much of his boyhood. As he matured and his talents proliferated, his egoism, not surprisingly, grew proportionately.

—McCabe [George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1973)], p. 106.

Notable in the preceding excerpts is a significant level of disagreement about what the two terms mean, even as the writers agree that egoism and egotism aren’t the same thing. In particular, James Walker, who equates egotism with selfishness and egoism with “selfiness,” seems out of step with most of the others, who regard selfishness as lying at the heart of egoism, and conceit or me-me-me attention seeking as being the essence of egotism. But similar use of egotism as a synonym for selfishness appears in numerous other books, including some that acknowledge a distinction between egoism and egotism. Thus Charles Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (1905), makes the following remark in an early footnote:

I distinguish, of course, between egotism, which is an English word of long standing, and egoism, which was, I believe, somewhat recently introduced by moralists to designate, in antithesis to altruism, certain theories or facts of ethics. I do not object to these words as names of theories, but as purporting to be the names of facts or conduct, I do, and have in mind more particularly their use by Herbert Spencer in his Principles of Psychology and other works.

But later Cooley explicitly equates egotism with selfishness:

Selfishness as a mental trait is always some sort of narrowness, littleness or defect ; an inadequacy of imagination. The perfectly balanced and vigorous mind can hardly be selfish, because it cannot be oblivious to any important social situation, either in immediate intercourse or in more permanent relations ; it must always tend to be sympathetic, fair, and just, because it possesses that breadth and unity of view of which these qualities are the natural expression. To lack them is to be not altogether social and human, and may be regarded as the beginning of degeneracy. Egotism is then not something additional to ordinary human nature, as the common way of speaking suggests, but rather a lack. The egotist is not more than a man, but less than a man ; and as regards personal power he is as a rule the weaker for his egotism.

Instances where no distinction is made

Some writers—even some who are focusing on the topic of excessive self-regard—seem entirely oblivious to the possibility that egoism and egotism might mean different things. For example, from Jennie F. Willing, “Egoism,” in The Ladies’ Repository (January 1866):

Webster defines egoism “a passionate love of self, leading a man to consider every thing as connected with his own person, and to prefer himself to every thing in the world.”

Those diseases are most dreaded that skulk like an Indian enemy, or creep and glide like serpents through the byways leading to the life. One is not certain of their presence till too late. It is so with egoism. Many who are most victimized by it think themselves safest from it. “I know I’m not an egotist,” says a reticent, sharp-browed man. “I seldom speak of myself, but the truth is I’ve felt a hundred times like shooting myself because I’m such a dunce.” You no egotist! Why, my friend, you have a determination to be first and foremost in all things, as inveterate as that that nerved Alexander to mow down human opponents as men cut grain. That he might stand head and shoulders above the race. You are provoked that a Newtonian or Napoleonic brain was not crowded into your cranium. Every now and then you set your will as a flint to be somewhat in the world yet, and a failure leads you to the shooting point. Your egoism is ten times deeper and more dangerous than that of your braggadocio brother.

From E. R. Sill, “The Doctrines of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in The Californian and Overland Monthly (October 1882):

The two friends, Emerson and Carlyle, were akin as to their doctrines in certain ways. Both believed in individual power, and heartily admired the hero: only with Carlyle it was the power of will, in outward act; with Emerson it was the power of the intellect, in inward self-control and thought. They both despised egotism: but with Carlyle it was especially the ethical egotism of seeking only one's own happiness; with Emerson it was the intellectual egotism of seeing only one's own concerns.

This instance is notable for appearing in the same issue of The Californian as “Modern Ethics and Egotism” (cited above), and for using egotism in precisely the way that dictionaries have long tried to reserve for egoism.

And from Peter Leithart, “Egoism and Evil” (March 20, 2013) in First Things (“America's most influential journal of religion and public life”) (page references omitted):

Self-obsessed egoism is not, Zizek argues (Violence: Six Sideways Reflections), the essence of evil, and the “true opposite of egotist self-love is not altruism, a concern for the common good, but envy, ressentiment, which makes me act against my own interest.” The true evil is (citing Freud) the death-drive, our “self-sabotage.”


Alluding to Rousseau distinction between amour-de-soi (natural self-love) and amour-propre (preference for oneself over others, possible only in society), Zizek concludes: “An evil person is . . . not an egotist, ‘thinking only about his own interests.’ A true egotist is too busy taking care of his own good to have time to cause misfortune to others. The primary vice of a bad person is precisely that he is more preoccupied with others than with himself.”

Evil is not opposed to the spirit of sacrifice, as the opposition of egotism/altruism might suggest, but instead is “the very spirit of sacrifice” because the envious person is ready to sacrifice even his own well being so long as “I can deprive the Other of his enjoyment.”

A Google Books search for “egoism” + “egotism” produces many, many instances in which a writer consistently uses one word or the other, but quotes some other author who uses the alternative word to mean the same thing—all without calling attention to the shift in spelling or attempting to reconcile the two forms.

'Egoism' versus 'egotism' in forum conversations

Here is what I take to be an everyday instance in which different people use either egoist or egotist to refer to essentially the same characteristic—not because one or both of the people involved are observing a fine distinction in meaning but because one of them normally says “egoist” and the other normally says “egotist.” From comments made to “This MEP got a visit from the sheriff over unpaid Property Tax” in The [Dublin] Journal (May 6, [2014?]):

Leopold Dedalus: This guy comes across as a real egoist but I reckon this will probably strengthen his campaign if anything.

Richard Keough: Have you ever met the guy? I’ve only met him once at a meeting about human rights in Russia and came away with two thoughts 1. He’s tiny and 2. He was a politician who actually felt strongly about what he was talking about and had research it well. Certainly not an egotist.

Leopold Dedalus: I’ve never met him no, I perhaps should have said he comes across as an egoist on his posters as they are absolutely everywhere and that smug grin doesn’t do him any favours. That’s just cover-judging though I’ve no idea what he’s actually like.

Another slice-of-life opportunity for observation occurs on a page of the Naruto Forums that asks “Are you an egoist?” On this forum page (posted on April 2, 2009), four people who answered used some form of the word egotist, and eleven who answered used some form of the word egoist, but no one made any meaningful effort to distinguish between the meanings of the two terms.


I have rarely (if ever) heard a person use both egoism and egotism in everyday conversation. This circumstance, coupled with the general absence of evidence in Google Books search results of a heightened awareness among nonspecialists of the supposed distinction between the two terms, leads me to suspect that most people make no such distinction, but instead view the terms as variant spellings/pronunciations of a single word with the consistent meaning of undue self-regard.

A quick look at the entries for egoism, egoist, egotism, and egotist in James Murray, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, volume 3 (1891) reveals that overlap in the way the terms have been used is of long standing. Thus the fourth definition of egoism is “EGOTISM 1” (that is, the first definition of egotism, which is, in part, “the practice of talking about oneself or one’s doings”). And whereas the third definition of egoism is

In matters of opinion : a. The habit of looking upon all questions chiefly in their relations to oneself. b. Excessive exaltation of one’s own opinion ; self-opinionatedness.

the second definition of egotism is

The vice of thinking too much of oneself ; self-conceit, boastfulness ; also, selfishness.

And the third definition of egoist is “One who talks much about himself ; =EGOTIST.

Given the overlapping meanings of egoism and egotism, it is hardly surprising that most English speakers either aren’t aware that both words exist in modern English or consider them interchangeable variants. Distinguishable definitions for the two words do indeed exist, and some informed writers are careful about using the terms discriminately, but I doubt that most people could tell egoism and egotism apart.

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