The Etymology of Sympathy and Empathy by Kelly Knox

Πάσχω/ πάθος

(Paskho: ‘to suffer’/ Pathos: ‘that which happens to a person)

Pathetic: (adjective) “From Middle French pathétique, from Latin patheticus, from Ancient Greek παθητικός (pathētikós, “subject to feeling, capable of feeling, impassioned”), from παθητός (pathētós, “one who has suffered, subject to suffering”), from πάσχω (páskhō, “to suffer”)”[i].

Words…are personal presences which have whole mythologies:

 genders, genealogies (etymologies concerning origins and creations),

histories, and vogues; and their own guarding, blaspheming,

 creating and annihilating effects. Words are persons.

 … Without the inherence of soul in words, speech would not move us,

 words would not provide forms for carrying our lives

 and giving sense to our deaths.[ii]

~James Hillman

Our point of access to the words under consideration, is the quote from Hillman that tops this article. Hillman describes “words” as “persons”. Hillman understands the difference between saying that words are “people” and that “words are persons.” A person, etymologically, is a persona, the Latin word for mask. So, we can interpret; we should interject that Hillman implies that words are “masks”. Words are shadowy characters, cloaked in time and masked by intangibles of “denotation” and “connotation”; they drift, shift and hold, between the white margins of a page, now static, now fluid; they ask to be regarded as just another “face” in the crowd. To extend the metaphor, we can tug at their cloaks, and tease loose the strings that holds their masks, to reveal the characters of the words beneath it. This is the work of etymology and the philologist; we uncover the meanings of words to show, not just what words mean, but how and why words mean as they do. We will look at “sympathy” and “empathy.”

A typical and somewhat simplistic understanding of the difference between sympathy and empathy, reads, that sympathy is a sense of shared feelings, empathy is an understanding of feelings that are not necessarily shared. These definitions are, of course, wrong.

Sympathy, constructed from the Greek “sym,” meaning together, and “pathos,” referring to feelings or emotion, is used to describe when one person shares the same feelings of another, such as when someone close is experiencing grief or loss. Empathy is a newer word also related to “pathos,” but there is a greater implication of emotional distance. With “empathy” you can imagine or understand to how someone might feel, without necessarily having those feelings yourself. [iii]

The good editors at Merriam-Webster, did not trace the etymologies back far enough; and they have wholly ignored the word “empath” in (even its) contemporary use.

Brohaugh[iv] tells us that the word sympathy has an obsolete meaning that alludes to two parties being in “agreement,” at least by 1600; another obsolete meaning suggests an “affinity” for someone else, by 1570; but the most common meaning of “an appreciation of another’s feelings” appears by 1630 (150). Empathy, on the other hand, again, as listed by Brohaugh, does not surface until 1904; empathic was current by 1910, empathize, by 1925 and empathetic by 1935. The temporal distance between the two words is remarkable; it is as if, at least in English, “empathy” is a new idea. For further insight, we must consult the Oxford English Dictionary, volumes I and II, of the compact edition. [v]

Surprisingly, perhaps shockingly, the OED of my edition (1971), does not include a listing for Empathy.[vi] Fortunately, The New Century Dictionary does include a listing for the word.[vii] Empathy is traced in the New Century Dictionary from the Greek verb ‘pathein’, to suffer and the prefix en, or in, thus, to suffer or to feel. The passage given also tells us that the word was “formed as an equivalent of [the German] einfuhlung,[viii] lit. ‘in-feeling” (493). The editors define the word empathy specifically in reference to psychology: “…mental entrance into the feeling or spirit of a person or thing; appreciative perception or understanding.” They tag the entry with the adjectival form “em-path-ic” (493).  If we compare the Merriam-Webster definition above, with this New Century definition, we can see how or to what extent the former is lacking.

Whereas the Merriam version seems sterile and distant, the New Century’s association to the German ‘einfuhlung’ is almost poetic. Empathy, it seems requires, not distance but the dissolution of distance, in a conscious movement ‘into’ the emotional state of another. When we empathize with another, according to this preferred definition, we “[mentally enter] into the feelings or the spirit of [another] person….” This, I believe is far more significant and revealing. Empathy allows us at least temporarily and metaphorically, to feel exactly what the other person is feeling. The dual origins of the word from Πάσχω (suffering) and πάθος (what happened or is happening) offers us a full range of emotions as we empathize with others. We can empathize with joy as well as sorrow or suffering, whatever the other person is feeling.

To continue our analysis and I hope, lift it above the mundane, we turn now to ‘sympathy.’ The OED does offer an extensive listing for sympathy. The etymology is similar to that given above for empathy, with the substitution of the assimilated form of a Greek and Latin prefix, sym, which means having ‘a like form’ or ‘conformed to’. [ix] A basic understanding then, of the word sympathy is having feelings like or conformed to the feelings of another. If we look to the latter explanation, we shape our feelings to match the feelings of another. This is an active, not a passive registration of what someone else is feeling. Let’s look then, in abbreviated form at some pertinent passages from the OED:

  1. A (real or supposed) affinity between certain things, by virtue of which they are similarly or correspondingly affected by the same influence one another (esp. in some occult way) or attract or tend towards each other…. Obs. [obsolete] …or as merged in other senses.

Powder of sympathy [I kid you not—keep reading] …a powder supposed to heal wounds by ‘sympathy’ on being applied to a handkerchief or garment stained with blood from the wound, or to the weapon with which the wound was inflicted…. (OED 3207)

This I believe is very revealing. The term sympathetic magic will not be unfamiliar to those who have done some research or have some practice in the occult arts. Occult, by the way does not mean sinister, it means hidden or secret. In the OED, under the first entry for the word ‘sympathy’, the editors have given us an example of sympathetic magic—healing over both distance and time with the application of a magic, ‘sympathy’ powder. So, at least by extension and metaphor, sympathy implies a kind of magical connection of one thing or one person to another. It works, we don’t know quite how, but as if by magic.

  • Agreement, accord, harmony, consonance, concord; agreement in qualities, likeness, conformity, correspondence. Obs. Or merged in 3 a….
  • a. Conformity of feelings, inclinations or temperament, which makes persons agreeable to each other; community of feeling; harmony of disposition.

b. The quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other; the …capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of the other…. [Italics mine]

c. The quality or state of being thus affected by the suffering or sorrow of another….

d. In weakened sense, a favorable attitude of mind towards a party, cause, etc… [Italics mine] (OED 3207).

I’ve made substantial edits, for brevity, as indicated by the ellipses.  As you read through these variations on the definition of sympathy, I hope you will have noticed the links of these older definitions to the newer word, empathy.  The sense of one being ‘merged into” or “entering into” the feelings of the other, or even the “capacity” to “share” the feelings of the other, must be the jumping off points from sympathy to empathy.  For me, both words should be indicative of a kind of magic that we as human beings possess and are able to use and even to perfect in our day to day lives—even if we don’t quite understand it.

  • Kelly Knox

[i] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pathetic, accessed August 16, 2019

[ii] Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology . Harper & Row, 1977. The quotation has been edited as indicated in the ellipses. The substance of the quote is from page 9 of Hillman’s text. I should note too, that it took remarkable restraint on my part not to edit Hillman’s use of ‘which’ for ‘that’ but that would have required editorial brackets, which I find to be unsightly.

[iii] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/sympathy-empathy-difference    (Accessed 29 August, 2019)

[iv] Brohaugh, William. English Through the Ages: From Old English to Modern-Day Slang, a Word-by-Word Birth Record of Thousands of Interesting Words, Writer’s Digest Books, 1998.

[v]The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: a-o. I; p-z. II, Oxford University Press, 1971. I have used these references before and have cited it below. For the purposes of citation here, we will continue to use endnotes, with the citation OED I, or OED II and the relevant page.

[vi] I checked several times. The listings proceed from “Empaste” to “Empatron,” without “Empathy”.

[vii] The New Century Dictionary: A-Pocket Veto, I, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1953. [Volume One].

[viii] The reader should forgive me, the lack of the proper accent mark over the ‘u’ in einfuhlung, my version of word doesn’t do that….

[ix] (OED 3205).

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