Cynical or Cínico?

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’tlike 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 notEVERtell 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.


24 responses to “Cynical or Cínico?

  1. Oooh, this is good to know…being English I’m naturally extremely cynical 🙂 Here in Chile I’ve been described as being ‘muy acido’ in situations where in English I would have said ‘cynical’…

  2. uh-huh… so I guess you should be glad that they AREN’T calling you cínico! At least they’re believing you…
    And kind of on that note… have you noticed that people also often use “irónico” when we (or I at least) would say “sarcastic”??

  3. Very interesting you just wrote this recently. We are writing something about this too for our readers. We also came across a blog from ’04 I think you will find of interest.

  4. Muy interesante!

  5. Thanks for that link- I’d never seen the Life in Translation blog before… very interesting! And please send a link when you finish your piece!

  6. For further reading on this topic and other useful information on Spanish grammar and usage, see:

  7. Pingback: Flirting with Frugal « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  8. Most dictionaries would say that “cínico” means cynical. Even Diccionario de la RAE says cínico is desvergonzado.

    However “cínico” in Chile means hypocrite, which is almost the opposite. It’s bad usage, but very common.

  9. Hi Pedro-
    Yes, the dictionaries DO give that translation, but the dictionary definitions are different! In English it is not “desvergonzado” at all.
    And you’re right, it always seemed odd to hear it used as hypocrite… the same way it seems so odd to hear “irónico” when I’m thinking sarcastic (hm, guess I’ll have to look into THAT odd pair as well!)

  10. I think cynical is “desvergonzado”: showing contempt for accepted standards of honesty or morality by one’s actions, esp. by actions that exploit the scruples of others.

    In Latin: irony = you mean the opposite of what you say. Sarcasm = irony intended to insult.

    Both in English irony and sarcasm are now used as synonyms; sarcasm is preferred in English and “ironía” in Spanish. However, many Spanish speakers make the difference and for them sarcasmo = Burla sangrienta, ironía mordaz y cruel con que se ofende o maltrata a alguien o algo.

    On the other hand there is Alanis Morissette’s irony, i.e. when life mocks you (as in “An old man turned ninety-eight
    He won the lottery and died the next day”).

  11. The definition of cynical is “1-scornful of the motives of others, 2- Bitterly mocking, sneering,” although in my experience, the second exception is rarely used. It is said of someone who does not believe that others can act with good intentions and without self-interest. It refers not to someone’s behavior, but of their way of thinking. It comes from a deep distrust of the motives of others. It does not refer to honesty as it does in Spanish.

  12. Hi Margaret,

    I’ve had this discussion many times throughout the years with different people and I’m quite convinced that we Chileans just use the word in the wrong way. I also believe this situation is only present in Chilean and not in the Spanish language in general.

    I understand that “cínico” DOES translate as cynical, but we just switch it for the definition of “hipócrita” (hypocrite) when we use it. I know few people who use the word “hipócrita” in Spanish and most use “cínico” instead.

    I personally try to use each word the right way.

  13. There are really two issues here… you are in agreement with Pedro A, who pointed out that Chileans have their own particular usage of cínico, and I won’t argue with that… but the other point is that the official definitions of the two words are not the same… look up the definition of cínico in RAE and then cynical in an English dictionary… and nada que ver! THAT’s what makes it all so interesting!

  14. Pingback: Ways to Alienate a Chilean « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  15. Pingback: Cachando Chile: a Year in Review « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  16. Contrary to popular believe languages were created to confuse people, rather than help them communicate effectively (Genesis 11. 1-9). It seems to me that the only language that God will preserve for his kingdom is going to be the language of Love.

  17. Pingback: Speaking Chilensis: beware the Fake False Cognates « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  18. Here in puerto rico the majority of the people use cinico de same way as in Chile as a hypocritic. Although in the (hispanophilic ) educated elite some people may agree with the “cynical” in english due to their knowledge of the greek school of thought. There is other sector which is the bilingual-proffesionals (who think they are noth-american) who use english and spanish interchangeably in the same sentence do translate many english words litterally due to their underestmation (and lower spanish education) of the spanish language. They may use cinico as an equivalent to the english cynical but for a different reason.

  19. Hi Wordxist- That must make for an awful lot of confusion! By using both terms interchangeably, both senses lose meaning because one can never be sure which meaning is intended without further clarification. They are generally used in the same context (to describe someone’s attitude, behavior, or way of thinking), so it would seem that without more information, the meaning remains unclear, and therefore the word becomes useless…. ¿or no? Does anyone else have any ideas on this? Or perhaps similar experiences of finding both meanings in the same geo-cultural context?

  20. Thank you for this article! Now I understand why a chilean woman got so angry with me the other day, when I said that Chileans could be very “cinicos” sometimes

  21. Oh yeah… that would definitely get you into trouble!!

  22. Raúl Simón Eléxpuru

    For me (just for me), “cínico es alguien que miente descaradamente”, and “cynical is someone who tells the (unpleasant) truth shamalessly”. It is just a mnemotechnical rule, and perhaps it is wrong in the first part.

  23. Thanks Raúl. From what I understand, the Spanish definition is correct, but the English is a bit different. It has more to do with seeing human actions negatively, of not believing that people are capable of selfless acts, that all deeds are calculated so that the deed-doer receives a benefit.

  24. Great! I’ve had this discussion so many times! I think (with Raul) that there is a shared “core” meaning: being cynical is being able to say something normally unspeakable without even blinking… whether it is an uncomfortable truth or an open lie is the issue. Most latin americans use the second meaning, I think, but the former is also used in some contexts.

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