cyn·​i·​cal ˈsi-ni-kəl How to pronounce cynical (audio)
: having or showing the attitude or temper of a cynic: such as
: contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives
… those cynical men who say that democracy cannot be honest and efficient.Franklin D. Roosevelt
: based on or reflecting a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest
a cynical ploy to win votes
cynically adverb

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Out of the Kennel: The History of Cynical

Cynical has a certain amount of dog in its ancestry, although not in the way that you might think. In ancient Greece, the followers of the philosopher Antisthenes were referred to as kynikos (“doglike”); when cynical was first used in English, it often was in reference to this group of philosophers.

A number of other English words have a canine history as well: harass can be traced to a word in Middle French (harer) meaning “to set a dog on;” sarcasm comes from a Greek word (sarkazein) which means “to tear flesh like dogs;” and even the word for a completely different animal, the canary, comes from a word for dog (the explanation for this seeming incongruity is that the bird comes from the Canary Islands, the name of which comes from the Latin for “dog islands,” Canariae insulae).

Choose the Right Synonym for cynical

cynical, misanthropic, pessimistic mean deeply distrustful.

cynical implies having a sneering disbelief in sincerity or integrity.

cynical about politicians' motives

misanthropic suggests a rooted distrust and dislike of human beings and their society.

a solitary and misanthropic artist

pessimistic implies having a gloomy, distrustful view of life.

pessimistic about the future

Examples of cynical in a Sentence

… if more and more people out there are willing to kill themselves in order to kill us, we've got to give the poor and cynical of the world something positive to believe in. Robert Reich, Prospect, February 2003
When "Roots" premiered on the ABC network in 1977, my generation of black academics and activists was cynical and outraged. We felt the horrors of slavery were rendered flat and lifeless by the miniseries … Houston A. Baker, Jr., Vibe, February 2002
It was fear of the Other, the poor, the dying—or to evoke a word with biblical authority—the pestilential. And so I could no longer be cynical about her motives. Bharati Mukherjee, Time, 14 June 1999
… was quiet spoken, but he had a cynical arch to his brows, as though he were repressing an urge to sneer. Joseph Wambaugh, The Blooding, 1989
Cynical people say there is no such thing as true love. People are so cynical nowadays. She's become more cynical in her old age. Some people regard the governor's visit to the hospital as a cynical attempt to win votes. See More
Recent Examples on the Web The campaign was not aided by the September lawsuit against them—a legal action that their attorneys say is a cynical effort by John Ray to influence the outcome of their son’s trial. Sheelah Kolhatkar, The New Yorker, 25 Sep. 2023 Her youthful experience with the legislative process left her somewhat cynical about politics. Ben Jacobs, The New Republic, 21 Sep. 2023 Clearly the filmmaker intended a wryly cynical commentary on people’s natural attraction to royalty and authoritarian rule, a theme that remains relevant in many parts of the world outside Bhutan. Stephen Farber, The Hollywood Reporter, 5 Sep. 2023 Ideally the protagonist would be cynical enough about fame to make fresh, surprising observations but interested enough to be thinking about fame a lot in the first place. Rachel Connolly, The New Republic, 12 Sep. 2023 The film revolves around a cynical movie critic, whom Tarantino read growing up, and is set in 1977 Southern California. Winston Cho, The Hollywood Reporter, 8 Sep. 2023 None of this is to minimize the suffering or discontent of those civilian souls who wait all year for Burning Man, or to say that there’s solely a cynical spin on this. Daniel D'addario, Variety, 5 Sep. 2023 Enthused at the gambling possibilities of such an ability, the cynical Henry devotes himself to learning this method of concentrating the mind. Bilge Ebiri, Vulture, 2 Sep. 2023 In some ways, France is an easy scapegoat for cynical army men. Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, 1 Sep. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'cynical.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


see cynic

First Known Use

1542, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Time Traveler
The first known use of cynical was in 1542

Dictionary Entries Near cynical

Cite this Entry

“Cynical.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Oct. 2023.

Kids Definition


cyn·​i·​cal ˈsin-i-kəl How to pronounce cynical (audio)
: having the attitude of a cynic : not trusting human nature
cynically adverb

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