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A misanthrope dislikes the human race and avoids human society as far as possible. He — most people called misanthropes are male — isn’t an easy person to get along with, and he would greatly prefer you didn’t try.

Misanthrope is from the classical Greek misanthropos. It shares with misogyny and a few other words a beginning from misein, to hate. The second part is from anthropos, a human being, which we also have in words such as anthropology. From the same source, philanthropy is the opposite of misanthropy, literally a love of mankind that expresses itself in active efforts to help other people.

History and fiction record many misanthropes. The best-known fictional one is Alceste, in Molière’s comedy Le Misanthrope of 1666, which helped to popularise the word. The most famous real person was Timon, though strictly speaking we have to take the word of a couple of classical Greek writers that he actually existed. He is said to have lived in Athens in the fifth century BC and became known as Timon Misanthropos because he turned against people after he lost his fortune through being too generous to his friends and had to earn a living as an agricultural labourer. His story was taken up by William Shakespeare; around 1606, in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, he wrote what is probably his least popular play, Timon of Athens:

I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind,
For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog,
That I might love thee something.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Mar. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 22 March 2014.