Which Word Wednesday: Cynical, Sarcastic, and Skeptical

By January 12, 2011 language No Comments

Welcome to the first Which Word Wednesday of 2011! [I can hear your cheers echoing through the blogosphere!]

Today’s word quandary comes from a submission made via Facebook last month (hello, Bill!). I tucked the suggestion in my idea folder and decided to haul it out for the first WWW of the year.

As I prep this post, I am struggling with the nature of this word trio as kick-off for WWW in 2011. They are a rather negative bunch with which to launch a new year and are in contrast to the five days of happy Disney messaging I’ve just had. And these sentiments are not typically in great abundance until say, mid-February, after all our hopeful resolutions have failed and faded (how’s that for negative flair!).

Well, let’s get on with the trio to see how the Oxford American Dictionary defines them:

cynical :: adjective
believing that people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity

sarcastic :: adjective
marked by or given to using irony in order to mock or convey contempt

skeptical :: adjective
not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations; relating to the theory that certain knowledge is impossible

Based on these definitions, which term is correct for the statement I made about resolutions lasting only 1.5 months into the year?

Cynical could work in the sense that I am revealing my distrust of human integrity to do what was resolved on New Year’s Day. Sarcastic also seems to fit—my statement is mocking how resolutions are tough to keep. What about skeptical? You could say that my statement reveals my doubts and reservations about the sincerity of those resolutions.

hmmm . . . I need reinforcements. Let’s go to my trusted sources.

In The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language, author Rod Evans tells us that skeptics are “inclined to question what others rarely, if ever, question.”1 By his definition, my comment is not skeptical because most people would agree that resolutions are tough to keep the whole year through.

Dave Dowling offers additional insight in The Wrong Word Dictionary. He says that sarcastic refers specifically to “using bitter or caustic language against someone.”2 By his definition, then, my comment is not sarcastic.

So now we’re down to cynical. Do sources support this choice?

Mark Davidson, in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage, does. “The word Cynic over the centuries became synonymous with ‘faultfinder.’ ”3 That seems to be about right—my comment finds fault with people for breaking their resolutions.

What’s my WWW verdict? My comment was rather cynical in nature. And it reveals a smidgen of negativity buried within my typically dreamy and idealistic outlook. I’m like that pretzel M&M—happy candy on the outside with a bit of cranky pretzel on the inside.

What’s your verdict? Is it cynical to state that people will break their New Year’s resolutions? Share your comments; poll widget was giving me trouble, so no poll today. [I can hear your boos echoing across the blogosphere.]

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 62–63.
2. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 73.
3. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 186.

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