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 we’re with Dictionary.com here. The new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage nicely differentiates the two terms, so we’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, entered English from Late Latin (sympathia), but comes ultimately from the classical Greek συμπάθεια (sympatheia), or “fellow feeling.” The roots literally mean “together” + “feeling.”
The word was first recorded in 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.
The noun has cousins in French (sympathie), Italian (simpatia), Spanish (simpatia), and Portuguese (sympathia).
“Empathy” is the English version of a German word, einfühlung (“in” + “feeling”), which the Germans adapted in 1903 from the Hellenistic Greek word for “passion” or “physical affection,” ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), also literally “in” + “feeling.” (In modern Greek, the word has the opposite meaning—hatred, malice, and so on.)
The OED defines “empathy,” which entered English in 1909, as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.”
In the 1940s the word acquired a meaning in the field of psychology, the OED says: “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”
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, sorry to disappoint you. We sympathize with you over the disappointment, and we empathize with what you’re feeling.