The Grammarphobia Blog

The whole empanada

Q: I have always thought the word “empathetic” should be banned from the language since “empathic” covers it. Perhaps people who prefer “empathetic” are thinking of “empanada.” Am I correct in my thinking?

A: “Empathic” dates back to 1909 and “empathetic” to 1932, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, so both adjectives are relatively new.

The two words are considered standard English in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)

The two dictionaries define “empathetic” and “empathic” the same way: relating to or characterized by empathy – that is by identifying with another person’s feelings, motives, situation, etc.

Both words are widely used, but “empathetic” is more popular, with 2 million Google hits to 1.35 million for “empathic.” Why is “empathetic” hot?

I don’t think empanadas enter the picture. My guess is that “empathetic” has become more popular than “empathic” over the years because of its similarity to “sympathetic.” The OED makes the same case, suggesting that “empathetic” is modeled “after such derivatives as sympathetic from sympathy.”

If you associate empathy with sympathy, it’s natural to think of the corresponding words “empathetic” and “sympathetic.” (There is no modern word “sympathic.” There once was, but it’s now considered rare or obscure.)

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