Language Corner

Don’t be such an egotist

September 13, 2016

Donald Trump has been called an “egoist,” an “egotist,” and a “narcissist,” among other things.

Before you start spamming us, remember that this is a column about language, not politics. We intend to discuss the words, not the man.

One publication said of Trump: “He is an egoist, unconcerned with public policy, risk-taking, verbally undisciplined.”

Another columnist said that the GOP was “aghast over the unstable egotist at the top of its ticket.”

One Washington Post story about some voters’ view of Trump got multiple digs in at once. “Several described him as a narcissist or an egotist, with one claiming ‘his entire campaign is just about his ego.’ ”

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To be fair, most of these references have been in letters to the editor or in columns or commentary, not straight news, and some have also been applied to Trump’s opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Even so, “egoist” and “egotist” seem to be used interchangeably, as synonyms for “really self-centered,” with “narcissist” occasionally being substituted.

But “egoist” and “egotist” don’t mean the same thing, though they are close, and they’re actually pretty far from “narcissist.” 

There are dictionary definitions and then there are psychiatric definitions. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one preferred by The Associated Press and many news organizations, defines “egoist” as “a person who is self-centered or selfish”; “a conceited person; egotist”; or “a person who accepts the doctrine of egoism.”

WNW defines “egotist” as “a person characterized by egotism.” (Don’t you just hate it when a dictionary defines a word with a version of that word, which doesn’t help you define it?) Its definitions of “egotism” are “constant, excessive reference to oneself in speaking or writing”; “conceit or vanity”; “selfishness.” In a usage note, WNW says that “egotism is generally considered more opprobrious than egoism.” (Don’t you just hate it when a dictionary uses a word in a definition that you then have to define? “Opprobrious” means despicable or shameful.)

Merriam-Webster’s definitions are little more helpful. In “egoism,” it says, “individual self-interest is the actual motive of all conscious action.” It also says “egoism” can be “excessive concern for oneself with or without exaggerated feelings of self-importance,” and then refers to one of its definitions of “egotism”: “an exaggerated sense of self-importance.”

Then there are the psychological definitions: “Psychological egoism,” one university site says, “claims that each person has but one ultimate aim: her own welfare.”

A supplement to an academic paper, Moral Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism, gives a hint to the main differences between and “egoist” and “egotist.” “Egoism, for example, requires that each agent bring about the outcome which is best for that very same agent,” the supplement said. “What then is the non-cognitive attitude the egoist expresses? It isn’t just approval of or preference for actions that favor his or her own well-being, since the egoist is not an egotist—a person who thinks that all agents should aim at his or her well-being.”

In other words, an “egoist” wants to do what is best for herself; an “egotist” thinks everyone should do what’s best for her as well.

Let’s move to “narcissist.” It’s not a synonym for “egotist” or “egoist.” “Narcissism,” WNW says, is “excessive interest in one’s own appearance, comfort, importance, abilities, etc.” There is no implied sense of superiority, only a fixation. Someone constantly checking how they look in a mirror may think, “Gee, don’t I look great?” but there’s no sense that they look better than everyone else.

Most of us know at least one of the mythological stories of Narcissus, son of a god and a nymph. The versions differ, but they all end with Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and wasting away (or killing himself).

Again, there’s also a psychological definition: a “narcissist” has a sexual desire for his own body, seeing himself as his own erotic object. 

There’s probably a little “egoist” in all of us, since we look out for ourselves frequently; that “t” brings with it an inflated sense of self-importance, an indifference or insensitivity to the needs of others. We are all probably a little “narcissist” as well, concerned about how we look or think. It’s the “egotists” that you really have to watch out for.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.