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Tom’s words

Escapades in etymology

By Tom Chatfield   March 2008

Empathy—understanding another’s feelings—is a quality frequently demanded of us today, from charity appeals to relationships. It’s a Greek term that entered English via German in the late 19th century, and literally means “feeling into,” from em and pathos, meaning “in” and “feeling.” Before empathy, the English word used to signal fellow-feeling was “sympathy,” which comes from the Greek sym and pathos, meaning “with” and “feeling,” first used in the 16th century.

The subtly different claims being made by these words reflect these periods. To be sympathetic is to feel “with” someone—a humanist updating of the more spiritually resonant 14th-century…

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