A Word to the Cynics

Yesterday, we posted an article about how a dog had kept a lost, elderly woman warm throughout the night. The link to the article on the Japan Today site included a number of readers’ comments which were, on the whole, dismaying, as many of them seemed to be more interested in trying to make cynical jokes (thus revealing their age, or rather, lack of it).

That’s really ironic, if you look at the etymology of “cynic.” (I’m an incurable etymologist!) Webster’s says: “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”

The American Heritage dictionary adds: “A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.” (In my observation this is a style that often starts in the teenage years (especially with boys) as an attempt at building individuality. Unfortunately some people never grow out of it.)

The word “cynic” derives from the name of a fourth-century B.C.E. sect of Greek philosophers, the Cynics. They believed, according to Webster’s, “that virtue is the only good, that the essence of virtue is self-control, and that surrender to any external influence is beneath human dignity.” This sounds fairly reasonable (though the third principle sounds like it could verge on raw egotism; more about that later).

So how did “cynical” get its present meaning of “faultfinder”? That’s even more ironic, if a little obscure. The dictionary says that the Greek word kunikos, from which cynic comes, was originally an adjective meaning “doglike,” from kun, “dog.”

What’s the connection with dogs?? Apparently a well-known member was so disdainful of deferring to others’ views on personal behavior that he won a reputation of “acting like a dog” — and the nickname of “Dog” — by doing such things as barking in public, urinating on a table leg, and so on! (At least with real dogs that’s natural and has no ulterior meaning…)

The connotation of “faultfinder”, then, apparently came from the behavior of Cynics, who — naturally believing their _own_ actions virtuous — never hesitated to point out what they considered the faults of others.

So it’s ironic that these self-styled _cynics_ disdain this article about a virtuous _dog_ saving an old woman.

Another aspect of the dog’s role in this style of expression is found in the word “sarcasm”. It also derives from the Greek. (There used to be a saying, “The Greeks had a word for it,” and it seems they really did create a remarkable vocabulary that has persisted for millennia. How different the world would be now, if they’d had TV, iPods, and video games…)

“Sarcasm” is defined as “a cutting, often ironic remark intended to wound or make its victim the butt of contempt or ridicule.” (Note that many Japanese speakers — and others — use “cynical” when they really mean “ironic”. “Cynical” focuses on considering all [others’] actions to be selfishly motivated; “ironic” refers to incongruity between expected and actual; and “sarcastic” focuses on the desire to hurt others.)

In a dictionary I consulted many years ago, the root of “sarcasm” is the Greek “sarkazein”, which means “to tear the skin off in strips, like a dog.” So here we could say that by using sarcasm, the negative commenters on this article are themselves acting like dogs (the dark side of dogdom, that is).

One last note… Contributor “beelzebub” comments “that’s how Three Dog Night got their name.” I think he’s right (and possibly Australian; the two are not mutually exclusive [just kidding!]).

A couple of decades ago I went on a spree of reading books about “indigenous Australians” (formerly: “Aborigines”). Originally nomadic, these people kept dogs for hunting and as companions. Cold winter nights were described in terms of how many dogs you needed to have sleeping with you in order to keep warm; the highest number was three. (Evidently that night in Ibaraki was just a “one-dog night” — but cold enough, nonetheless.)

Researching this on the Internet, I found confirmation at the Wikipedia page devoted to the Los Angeles-based rock group Three Dog Night (maybe claiming to be “the coolest?). Their heyday was 1968-1975 but they are still touring, even this year. And from there, another link mentioned that Eskimos — or rather, Inuit peoples — also use this same index. All of which supports the idea of letting pets sleep on your bed.

And now it’s time to end this dogged pursuit of cynics and canines, and go feed Momo. Though only one cat, as “my futon ferret” she wriggles under the covers, doing her best to insulate against the winter chill.


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