What is the difference between “skeptical” and “cynical”?

The words ‘skeptical’ and ‘cynical’ have related meanings. However, they are still distinctively different words from different origins and with somewhat different connotations.

Dictionary.com defines skeptical as “having an attitude of doubt” or “doubtful about a particular thing.”

Skeptical comes from the ancient Greek word, ‘skeptikos,’ meaning “given to asking questions.” Our modern day English word originates from the Greek philosopher, Pyrrho, who taught his followers to be suspicious of their surroundings, to ask questions, and to never assume that things are as they appear.

Here is an example of the correct use of the word. Say your friend John is told by a complete stranger that his long lost aunt died and left him a fortune. John might say to the stranger, “That would be wonderful if it was true, but I’m skeptical.”

A few synonyms of skeptical include: doubtful, unconvinced, suspicious, and unbelieving.

Cynical has a slightly more personal connotation. It refers more to doubting a particular person’s motives or morality. Dictionary.com defines the word as “distrusting or disparaging the motives of others.”

As an example of the correct use of the word, imagine that a pretty young secretary has been hired at your office. One of your coworkers buys her flowers, saying that he wants to make her feel welcome. You, distrusting his motives for buying the flowers, might say to another coworker, “He claims he’s just being nice, but pardon me for being cynical.”

A few synonyms of cynical include: distrustful, scornful, mocking, and pessimistic.

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