From the Google Search dictionary (similar definition at oxforddicationaries):

1.believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.

2.concerned only with one's own interests and typically disregarding accepted standards in order to achieve them.

Isn't it slightly contradictory that one can be, according to these definitions, 'cynical of people because they are cynical'?

Another way of saying it is, 'I distrust the integrity of others' motives [I am cynical] because they are unscrupulously self-interested[they are cynical]'.

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    Hello, lucid1, and welcome to English Language & Usage. Your question is interesting, but I recommend that you alter the wording in the heading slightly, so that it focuses on asking how the two definitions can be reconciled (if they can be), rather than whether they are a little odd. Thanks! – Sven Yargs May 12 '15 at 21:13
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    lucid1 could you also provide the source of those definitions, please? A URL would be great, if you have it. – Ellie Kesselman May 12 '15 at 21:23
  • Cynics aimed to be quite indifferent in the face of any opinions or insults which might result from their unconventional behaviour. The first definition refers to a person taking a cynical look on the world (pessimistic lucidity is unconventional). The second refers to a selfish amoral behavior (also, assumed to be non conformist). So, you may be pessimistic because others are not generous. – Graffito Sep 10 '15 at 10:04
  • The terminology is certainly not unambiguous. But polysemy-with-hypernymy is fairly commonplace in English, and there are also some words with starkly contradictory senses. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 19 '16 at 12:50

The OED offers this definition:

Resembling the Cynic philosophers in contempt of pleasure, churlishness, or disposition to find fault; characteristic of a cynic; surly, currish, misanthropic, captious; now esp. disposed to disbelieve in human sincerity or goodness; sneering.

Perhaps a better question might be to ask why the use of cynic and cynical came to be principally associated with disposed to disbelieve in human sincerity - for you are right when you point to that as its most usual modern meaning.

Some years ago football TV commentators began referring to deliberately tactical fouls on the field of play as cynical, which seemed to me to be outside the usual limits of the word. However we can see that the Cynic School of Philosophers were bad and boorish in many ways.


Isn't it slightly contradictory that one can be, according to these definitions, 'cynical of people because they are cynical'?

Hardly. If I was distrustful of people's sincerity and thought they were motivated only by self-interest, why should I behave any differently?

Or from the other side, if I were motivated only by self-interest, would that not make me inclined to suspect the same of others?

Really, the two go hand in hand.

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