The Grammarphobia Blog

Hypercritical vs. hypocritical

Q: I was reading a posting on the religious blog Patheos about critics who are both “hypercritical” and “hypocritical,” which got me to thinking about those two words. They look like antonyms, but being “hypercritical” isn’t the opposite of being “hypocritical.” Are these terms related?

A: You’re right. The two adjectives aren’t antonyms. Someone who’s “hypercritical” is excessively critical while someone who’s “hypocritical” is insincere. But as that posting suggests, a “hypercritical” person can be “hypocritical.”

Are the words “hypercritical” and “hypocritical” related? Yes, if you go back far enough.

The English prefixes “hyper” and “hypo” are derived from the Greek prepositions hyper (over) and hypo (under). The “critical” part of these words ultimately comes from the classical Greek verb krinein (to judge, decide, etc.).

So someone who’s “hypercritical” is overly judgmental. But why, you’re probably wondering, is a “hypocritical” person insincere?

In ancient Greek, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, hypokrinesthai meant to play a part, hypokrisis was acting on the stage, and hypokrites was an actor.

How did the classical terms hypo (under) and krinein (to judge) give the Greeks the terms for act, acting, and actor?

The etymology is fuzzy here, but one possibility is that the Greeks recognized that actors had to subordinate their own judgment to play a role.

Now how did hypokrisis, the Greek term for acting, give English “hypocrisy,” a negative word for professing beliefs you don’t really have?

It turns out that in classical times hypokrisis also had an unpleasant odor to it, according to Chambers. In addition to meaning acting, the term referred to pretense and dissimulation—that is, insincerity.

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