The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Narcissism’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Narcissism’ is a handy word: it conveys the idea of being self-absorbed and self-regarding, there is a handy word which combines these two aspects of selfishness in one. But where does this word come from?

Well, to answer this question we might ask two separate, though related, questions. First, where did the word narcissism come from – i.e., who first used that word? And second, what is the etymology of narcissism – i.e., who was Narcissus, from whose name we get the word narcissism?

Let’s take these questions in turn.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines narcissism, when the word is employed in general use, as follows: ‘Excessive self-love or vanity; self-admiration, self-centredness.’

So, to be narcissistic one has to be in love with oneself to the point of being conceited or stuck-up. This isn’t just about loving yourself in the Justin Bieber sense of the phrase: it’s about loving oneself to excess.

Interestingly, the OED’s earliest citation for the word narcissism is the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), in a letter of 15 January 1822: ‘Of course, I am glad to be able to correct my fears as far as public Balls, Concerts, and Time-murder in Narcissism.’

So if we wished to determine the origin of the word narcissism, we could well answer, ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in a letter, in 1822’.

But of course this doesn’t tell us where the word was derived from, so that brings us to our second question. For narcissism is named in honour of Narcissus, a figure from classical Greek myth. But who was Narcissus?

Narcissus has become synonymous with self-love, with the adjective ‘narcissistic’ and the noun ‘narcissism’ being coined to describe the sort of behaviour which he himself exhibited. The woman who loved him, meanwhile, has a curious name: Echo. Yet Echo has her own separate story, and was only associated with Narcissus by the Romans, rather than the original Greeks, who came up with the figures of Echo and Narcissus. So we’ll leave Echo to one side as she’s not relevant here.

The story of Narcissus 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 – the 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.

What’s curious about the Narcissus story, as recounted here, is that Narcissus was, in a sense, guilty of one form of narcissism which then led to his being inflicted with another, deeper narcissism. That is, he started out being self-absorbed, but (presumably) had no idea what he looked like. So he wasn’t vain or conceited: just stuck in his own selfish little world.

It was because of this self-absorbed behaviour that Nemesis decided to show the youth how beautiful he was, by bringing him face to face with his own beauty in the natural mirror of the water’s surface. When he did so, he was then struck by vanity and love for his own beauty, and tried to dive into the water to … well, we won’t dwell on what he might have been trying to do to himself. Jump himself? We’ll draw a veil over that.

Anyway, the upshot of the Narcissus myth is that Narcissus gave his name to this condition of self-love that we now know as narcissism in his (dubious) honour. He also gave his name to the narcissus flower, a kind of daffodil, which is said to have sprung from his dead body.

We’ve dealt with the everyday definition of narcissism, but there’s also the more recent definition of narcissism from the field of psychology, first theorised by Havelock Ellis in 1905. The OED defines this as: ‘The condition of gaining emotional or erotic gratification from self-contemplation, sometimes regarded as a stage in the normal psychological development of children which may be reverted to in adulthood during mental illness.’

So this definition of narcissism is much more focused on the pathology of self-love, while also acknowledging that it’s often an important stage in a child’s development. Narcissus, perhaps, simply took a healthy regard for himself to extremes. Justin Bieber was (half-)right: we should all love ourselves … to a point.