Dear Hipster: Why do people say “cringe-y” when they so clearly mean “wince-y”? One doesn’t cringe when one hears something awkward or embarrassing, one winces. One cringes when one is afraid. Am I missing something? Speak, oracle. — G. Fink-Nottle
I suppose you are technically correct, a person cringes at the threat of an impending blow, and winces upon envisioning the pain or misfortune of others. The cringe arises from fear, whereas the wince springs from a kind of empathy. Yet, I would recommend you do not stand on ceremony here, lest you rather miss the point. Allow me to explain.
“Cringey” or “cringy” have invaded the parlance of our times as truncated versions of “cringeworthy.” The longer term, which remains undoubtedly more delightful both to speak and to hear, predates the lesser version, at least as far as the Urban Dictionary is concerned. I have no doubt that the trimming of the word was as inevitable as “refrigerator” dumbing its way down to “fridge” over time.
Should people use “cringeworthy” over “cringey”?
Absolutely, as the former is unquestionably superior, although that wasn’t your question. Indeed, your query delves much deeper, cutting to — or perhaps more accurately gnawing at — the succulent marrow secreted away within any good word.
The problem with “wince” is that it doesn’t quite get the job done. Roy Blount Jr., in the eminently quotable Alphabet Juice, postulates that some words are “sonicky,” which he describes as that “quality of a word whose sound doesn’t imitate a sound . . . but does somehow sensuously evoke the essence of the word.”
It isn’t lost on me that his chosen neologism suffers from a sad inadequacy in that it fails to demonstrate the very virtue it purports to name. Still, the thing about “cringeworthy” is that it is the perfect word to describe the sensation of hearing your awkward cousin candidly describe an intimate medical procedure to an unwilling audience, or watching a YouTube video of a white kid from the suburbs drop n-bombs and proclaim himself the most gangster, or just watching any scene from Batman and Robin.
When you need to describe something beyond awkward, “cringe,” or any derivation thereof, captures something that “wince” alone cannot. Insisting on technical correctness here would be failing to see the forest for the trees, and ultimately draining speech of its ability to capture the meaning even when the rules fail.