10 Historical Words That Don't Mean What You Think

Diogenes of Sinope is pictured with Alexander the Great. Diogenes was a famous Cynic. DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

The Greeks are again behind a word whose meaning has become muddled — "cynic." Today, the term is used to describe a person who feels everyone is motivated by selfish reasons — someone who is always negative and suspecting of what others say and do. But the original Cynics were people who belonged to an ancient sect of Greek philosophers. Cynics strived for virtue, and felt the only way to achieve it was through self-control, asceticism and poverty. Pleasure was not viewed as something good.

One famous Cynic was Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes went above and beyond most other Cynics, dismissing much of the day's comforts and social conventions in striving to lead the desired virtuous life. For instance, he'd walk barefoot through snow in an attempt to acclimate his body to the cold. He also apparently felt it his duty to remonstrate his fellow citizens if he found them doing something pleasurable, or indulging in any type of luxury [source: American Heritage Dictionary].

Although "Cynic" was used correctly when it first appeared in English in the 1500s, it quickly morphed into "cynic" (with a small "c"). Perhaps Diogenes' character influenced the switch. One story says people made fun of him at a banquet by throwing him bones as if he were a dog. Diogenes responded by urinating on the bones [source: American Heritage Dictionary].