Want to get yourself into some real hot water? Use the word “cínico” when you think you’re talking about “cynical.” Not, Not, NOT the same thing!
All language learners soon discover the quicksand land of false cognates. You know the ones I mean, those traitorous little words that seem innocent enough and that appear to be the same in two different languages but aren’t—like saying you’re “embarazada” (in Spanish) when you’re really only embarrassed… Some produce confusion, others are funny or embarrassing, and some can really get you into trouble. Am I being cynical here?
I learned this the hard way… make a note and learn from my experience:
do not—EVER—tell someone you want to remain friends, coworkers, lovers, and/or spouses with that “tu hijo, igual que tu mamá, es muy cínico” (Your son, just like your mother, is very cynical). Ay-yai-yai…
It turns out that cínico in Spanish does NOT mean someone who is skeptical of the motives of others, which is a pretty good definition of the English cynical.
In Spanish however, cínico (go ahead, look it up: ) means LIAR! To make things worse, it also includes aspects such as shamelessly obscene and disgustingly filthy.
The worst part of all was that I had no idea why this person reacted so strongly to my comment! Each convinced that we were right and that the other was horribly mistaken, we got out our respective dictionaries and discovered we were both right… except that I was also very wrong because I was the one misusing the Spanish word.
It turns out that although Cynicism and Cinismo both have their roots in an ancient Greek philosophical movement whose members (the Cynics/Cínicos) were dedicated to the pursuit of virtue through the use of self-control and the rejection of all material aspects of life.
So far, so good, but once we get beyond the ancient Greeks, English-speakers and Spanish-speakers go their separate ways. Each picks up the ball with an interpretation of the original movement, then takes it and runs in very different directions.
Over the centuries, English speakers fixated on the Cynics’ disdain and distrust of the virtues of others, while it seems that Spanish-speakers focused on the hypocrisy (and poor hygiene) associated with the movement.
So… even though your English-Spanish dictionary SAYS that cínico is cynical… don’t believe it! (hmm… is that a lie? Does that mean the dictionary is cínico? or am I just being cynical?)
For more false cognates, see Flirting with Frugal and Speaking Chilensis, Beware the Fake False Cognates.