When I was a kid, yelling “You’re a meanie!” was a useful epithet. It captured the anger and frustration and powerlessness one felt and hurled all of it at the person being a meanie.
To which the meanie would commonly reply, “I am not!”
Oh the joys of childhood days.
The Smallness of Meanness
As I got older I started hearing people describe a person or action as “meanspirited”, which I took to be a grown up way of calling someone a meanie.
That’s not what it means.
We often call someone mean when they are acting out of spite or a desire to hurt another person. And if someone accuses us of this we might respond “I didn’t mean to be mean”, meaning we meant to be kinder but somehow weren’t.
To be meanspirited means something else, though.
mean + spirited. .
I can be meanspirited when acting in a way not at all the same as what most people mean by being mean. If I act small-mindedly (as shown in the Greek mikropsykhos noted in the definition) rather than generously then I most closely match the original definition of being meanspirited.
I don’t mean to be meanspirited. And now that the word’s meaning is expanding to include actions that are cruel and spiteful as well as those that are petty and ungenerous, I really don’t mean it.
Know what I mean?
One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. (Proverbs 11:24-25.)