The Grammarphobia Blog

Sympathy strike

Q: An FAQ on Dictionary.com says “sympathy” is compassion for another person while “empathy” is imagining oneself in another person’s position. That’s backward from how I understand the two words. Who’s right?

A: Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m with Dictionary.com here. The new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage nicely differentiates the two terms, so I’ll pass along the definitions:

Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s position and to experience all the sensations connected with it. Sympathy is compassion for or commiseration with another.”

“Sympathy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes ultimately from the Greek word sympatheia, or “fellow feeling” (the roots literally mean “together” + “feeling”).

The word entered English in the mid-16th century, and its earliest meanings had to do with affinity, conformity, harmony, and the like. It came to mean feelings of compassion or commiseration in 1600, the OED citations suggest.

“Empathy” is the English version of a German word, einfühlung (“in” + “feeling”), which the Germans adapted in 1903 from the Greek word for “passion,” empatheia (also literally “in” + “feeling”).

The OED defines “empathy,” which entered English in 1904, as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.”

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives these examples of the two words at work: (1) “I have a lot of sympathy for her; she had to bring up the children on her own.” (2) “She had great empathy with people.”

Again, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I sympathize with you over the disappointment, and I empathize with what you’re feeling.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.