A face with a cringing expression


Meaning: Embarrassing

Antonym: Based

Originated in:  

Generally cringing is a facial expression and associated emotion one innately has when someone else is doing something very unpleasant. It is primarily used when someone is doing something extremely embarrassing without stopping. In this way, it is often used as a genre of humor, where characters act as embarrassingly as possible to incite both laughs and cringes simultaneously. It’s hard to explain why such pleasure is derived from such an objectively unpleasant emotion, but it is widely effective and mastered by popular shows such as The Office.

Classical cringing can also be elicited by other acutely unpleasant situations like certain injuries or medical procedures—things which one dreads to imagine being done to himself. Cringe is largely exclusive from sadness and realize on sharp, descriptive visuals, so it doesn’t apply to most serious, hidden, or chronic conditions.

Ultimately, the root of cringing is a strong empathetic response. You imagine yourself in someone else’s situation and innerly recoil from the unpleasantness thereof.

However, as the word “cringe” is often used in modern slang as a stand-alone adjective, it’s anything but empathetic. Instead of feeling for someone going through an embarrassing or traumatic experience, you’re essentially calling someone embarrassing. This turns the normally understanding word into a biting insult.

As it spread online, cringe as an insult grew to be used in opposition to based. Theoretically, both terms have very similar literal meanings: to do something that is not socially acceptable. People thus began to use cringe almost ironically to describe things which they did not like and either were actually socially acceptable, were not genuinely held, or which were seen as too wrong a belief to joke about. Over time, as this meaning became the common slang meaning, the nuance further shifted to just mean “I don’t like this”.