By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The word selfish is a very useful one, but it is also rather blunt and direct. Happily, there are other ways of describing someone as ‘selfish’ without using this word, or at least overusing it. Many of them, fittingly enough, are self- formations, as the first synonyms listed below indicate: many selfish synonyms are, appropriately, self-centred.
But there are important differences, shades of meaning separating these various synonyms from each other, which are worth being aware of – so below, we say a little bit more about these synonyms for ‘selfish’, before offering some useful antonyms.
Let’s begin, aptly enough, with those self- synonyms: synonyms for selfish which begin by drawing attention to the self. These include SELF-CENTRED, SELF-ABSORBED, SELF-SEEKING, SELF-SERVING, SELF-REGARDING, SELF-INTERESTED, SELF-INVOLVED, SELF-ORIENTED, and SELF-PREOCCUPIED.
Many of these are interchangeable, but it’s worth noting that self-absorbed and self-involved, in particular, can describe people whose actions may not be especially cruel to others, but whose mind is clearly focused on themselves. Somebody might be caring and devoted towards others and give generously to charity (and so on), and otherwise not be selfish as such, but still often turn a conversation towards themselves.
Often, however, they’ll do this because they’re worried about themselves, rather than because they’re showing off or want to be the centre of attention. So these terms, as well as self-preoccupied, might be described as ‘selfish lite’, if you will.
This brings us to an interesting point. How should we define selfishness? As Oscar Wilde remarked in his essay ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’: ‘Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.’
There is an important distinction to be drawn between personal and individual preferences which bring us pleasure and harm nobody else, and those preferences which are done at the expense of others.
Is it ‘selfish’ not to have children, or is it more selfish to have children because you want them for the wrong reasons (to prop up a failing relationship, to fill some sort of void in one’s life, etc.)? Who suffers from childlessness, compared with the unloved children who would suffer from being conceived and raised by parents indifferent to their welfare?
A more colloquial way of describing a self-absorbed person is to say that one is WRAPPED UP IN ONESELF. Again, this needn’t be in a self-regarding or mean way, but rather simply because they are used to worrying about themselves and are maybe too inward-looking, too prone to navel-gazing.
The Latin term for the self was the ego, which simply means ‘I’ in Latin. And there are several ego- formations which are handy if describing somebody whose actions or attitude are selfish: EGOCENTRIC, EGOTISTICAL, EGOTISTIC, and EGOISTIC are all interchangeable with selfish.
Meanwhile, EGOMANIACAL takes such self-centred behaviour to a whole new level. Egomania is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as ‘morbid egotism’, because it takes such selfishness to extremes: somebody who is egomaniacal is entirely fixated on themselves and on their own pleasures and goals, and to hell with everyone else.
If we return to the idea of being self-absorbed and self-regarding, there is a handy word which combines these two aspects of selfishness in one: NARCISSISTIC. But where does this word come from?
The story comes from classical Greek mythology. Narcissus was a beautiful youth – so beautiful, in fact, that all the boys and girls who saw him were struck by his beauty and desired him. Many of them pined away with unrequited love and despair because he ignored them, and some died from their heartache.
The god Nemesis – god of divine retribution – didn’t like the fact that Narcissus was completely indifferent to all of the hearts he was breaking, so the god arranged for Narcissus to come face-to-face with his own reflection in the surface of the water. When he stopped to quench his thirst in the waters of a spring one day, Narcissus promptly fell in love with his own image.
Wanting to kiss his beautiful reflection, he leaned into the water, and drowned. Narcissus died because he was unwilling to give himself to others. This is an important fact because Narcissus’ crime was his indifference to others rather than his love of his own beauty, which he didn’t clap eyes on until it was too late. Narcissus’ greatest flaw was self-absorption – that is, being preoccupied with himself to the exclusion of other people.
This means that narcissistic is a close synonym of another useful word: SOLIPSISTIC. This is from Latin words meaning ‘self’ and ‘alone’: the Latin sōlus (‘alone’) is the origin of our words solitary and solitude, while the Latin ipse means ‘self’. Solipsism is thus an excessive regard for oneself to the exclusion of others. Someone who is solipsistic is thus extremely self-absorbed but also excessively selfish.
Of course, somebody who possesses this level of self-regard is likely to have scant regard for others and therefore might also be described as MEAN and INCONSIDERATE.
When it comes to the pursuit of wealth and success, there’s a series of words which are useful for describing the kind of selfish, rather brutal behaviour people evince when trying to reach the top (and kick everyone else down the ladder in the process): such people are MERCENARY or GREEDY.
Sticking with money, people who are UNCHARITABLE and refuse to share their wealth or success with others can be described as STINGY and PARSIMONIOUS – a veritable Scrooge.
What is the opposite of selfishness? If you’re not selfish, you’re SELFLESS: putting others before yourself, and not paying any regard for your own happiness or welfare. Another way of saying this is simply to use the negative form of selfish, so UNSELFISH.
If someone is really selfless, they can be called SELF-DENYING or SELF-SACRIFICING: they are willing to give up anything that is self-focused in order to make others happy.
Another good antonym for selfish is ALTRUISTIC, from the Latin for ‘other’, because an altruistic person thinks of others. Such a person is also likely to be GENEROUS, CHARITABLE, MAGNANIMOUS, BENEVOLENT, KIND, CARING, and LOOKING OUT FOR OTHERS.