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Ego trip: “egoist” vs. “egotist”

Q: Is the proper form “egoist” or “egotist”? Without the “t” it always sounds wrong.

A: The short answer is that you can’t go wrong with “egotist” unless you’re discussing philosophy or ethics.

Technically, “egoism” and “egotism” have different meanings, though the meanings differ from dictionary to dictionary and overlap considerably.

In fact, most people who use “egoist” (or “egoism”) actually mean “egotist” (or “egotism”), and standard dictionaries now accept that usage. However, some sticklers insist on preserving a distinction that has never been very distinct.

Oxford Dictionaries online, in its US and UK editions, defines “egotism” as the “practice of talking and thinking about oneself excessively because of an undue sense of self-importance.” It defines “egoism” as “another term for egotism,” or as an “ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality.”

In a usage note in its UK edition, Oxford Dictionaries adds: “Strictly speaking, egoism is a term used in Ethics to mean ‘a theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of moral behaviour,’ although this sense is not dominant today; around 90 per cent of the citations for egoism in the Oxford English Corpus are for the meaning ‘excessive conceit.’ ”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has similar definitions for the two words. But it adds that “egotism” may also mean self-centeredness and excessive pride, while “egoism” may refer to the doctrine in philosophy “that all the elements of knowledge are in the ego.”

Our own searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus agree with the results from the Oxford English Corpus: “egoism” is now usually used to mean “egotism,” especially in the self-centered sense.

R. W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), doesn’t quite endorse the use of “egoism” for “egotism,” but says:

“To the general educated public, at any rate those who are uninformed about the technical language of ethics and metaphysics, the net result is a residual and persistent belief that the words are more or less interchangeable.”

Burchfield notes that the “adjectives egoistic and egotistic are now under threat by the increasingly popular adjective egocentric,” which the Macmillan Dictionary defines as “behaving as if you are more important than other people, and need not care about them.”

In Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), a more conservative reference book, Bryan A. Garner insists that “egoism” is a philosophical term and that its use for “egotism” is “widely shunned.” He says the use of “egoism” to mean selfishness “is a slipshod extension.”

What do we think? Well, we use “egotism” for boastfulness, selfishness, or excessive pride. We can’t remember the last time we used “egoism” in conversation or writing, other than in discussing the word’s usage.

As for the etymology, all these terms and their offshoots are ultimately derived from ego, Latin for “I.”

The first to show up in English, “egotism” and “egotist,” were used in reference to the “obtrusive or too frequent use of the pronoun of the first person singular: hence the practice of talking about oneself or one’s doings,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest examples for both words are in a passage (which we’ve expanded) from an essay by Joseph Addison in the July 2, 1714, issue of the Spectator:

“The most violent egotism which I have met with in the course of my reading, is that of Cardinal Wolsey, Ego et rex meus (I and my king); as perhaps the most eminent egotist that ever appeared in the world was Montaigne, the author of the celebrated essays.”

Where did the intrusive “t” in “egotism” and “egotist” come from? “It seems probable,” the OED says, “that egotism was formed on the pattern of some older word [ending] in -otism; compare for example French idiotisme.”

In the late 1700s, the “t”-less terms “egoism” and “egoist” first appeared in English as terms in philosophy (they were later applied to a system of ethics).

In philosophy, the OED says, the words were used in reference to the “belief, on the part of an individual, that there is no proof that anything exists but his own mind,” and they were “chiefly applied to philosophical systems supposed by their adversaries logically to imply this conclusion.”

The OED parenthetically mentions a 1722 sighting of the Latin egoismo, from the title of a religious treatise by the German theologian Christoph Matthäus Pfaff: De Egoismo, Nova Philosophica Hæresi.

But in English, both “egoism” and “egoist” first showed up in Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785):

“I am left alone in that forlorn state of egoism,” and “A sect … called Egoists, who maintained that we have no evidence of the existence of anything but ourselves.”

Soon writers began using “egoism” and “egoist” to mean “egotism” and “egotist.”

For example, the OED says “egoist” means “one who talks much about himself” in this citation from a June 13, 1794, letter by William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland: “My next letter shall be less egoist.”

And the dictionary says “egoism” means “egotism” in this citation from a March 20, 1807, letter by Thomas Jefferson: “Pardon me these egoisms.”

The OED also cites an earlier Feb. 6, 1795, letter by Jefferson that uses “egoisms” to mean selfish acts: “It must be so extensive as that local egoisms may never reach its greater part.”

In the early 1800s, according to the dictionary, the term “egoism” came to be used in ethics for the “theory which regards self-interest as the foundation of morality. Also, in practical sense: Regard to one’s own interest, as the supreme guiding principle of action; systematic selfishness.”

The first Oxford example for the use of “egoism” in ethics is from an 1801 entry in The Annual Register, an annual record of world events published since the mid-19th century:

“Generous sentiment and affection in France … was lost in selfishness or according to their new word Egoism.”

However, writers continued to use “egoism” more widely to mean selfishness, self-importance, and self-centeredness throughout the 19th century, as in these examples from the dictionary:

“Hearsays, egoisms, purblind dilettantisms” (from Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, 1843; the OED says “egoisms” here are acts of selfishness).

“He is deprived of every shadow of a plea to impute fanaticism or any form of egoism” (from William E. Gladstone’s Church Principles, 1840).

“Note the egoism of this verse and of those preceding it” (from Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David, 1871).

Interestingly, H. W. Fowler, in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), says, “Egoism is showing signs of ousting egotism” in popularity as a term for the “excessive use of I in speech or writing, & self-importance or self-centredness in character.”

It hasn’t happened yet, but “egoism” is still giving “egotism” a good run.

Our searches of the News on the Web corpus, which tracks online newspapers and magazines, show “egotism” ahead by about a third in popularity. Nearly all the citations for “egoism” use the term in the sense of “egotism.”

By the way, the newcomer, “egocentric,” showed up in the early 20th century as an ethnological or philosophical term, but it was soon being used popularly to mean self-centered.

We’ll end with this example from “The Gulf,” a poem by D. H. Lawrence that was  published in 1932, two years after he died: “And then the hordes of the spawn of the machine, / the hordes of the egocentric, the robots.”

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