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How pathetic! Have you no empathy?

by Richard Pooley

Pathetic!” said my step father-in-law a couple of years ago. He’d just heard that my son had found his new girlfriend via Tinder, the dating app. For a man in his mid-80s, who had met my wife’s mother over fifty years earlier when he became her lodger, this means of finding a mate struck him as unnatural and bloodless. A girl had to be won over face-to-face. It took courage to do battle in the flesh. Invisible rejection by a swift swipe of a photo to the left was the coward’s way. I defended my son’s honour in a heated exchange but my father-in-law’s contempt could not be assuaged. He repeated the scornful “pathetic” when telling his wife the news minutes later. She, eight years older and thrice married, kept her opinion to herself.

I was reminded of this use of ‘pathetic’ recently when doing some research on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes’ creator was a neighbour of Grant Allen, a Canadian-born science writer and novelist. Allen’s last novel - “Hilda Wade – A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose – was published posthumously in 1900 with a Publisher’s Note:

The last chapter of this volume had been roughly sketched by Mr Allen before his final illness, and his anxiety, when debarred from work, to see it finished, was relieved by the considerate kindness of his friend and neighbour, Dr Conan Doyle, who, hearing of his trouble, talked it over with him, gathered his ideas, and finally wrote it out for him in the form in which it now appears – a beautiful and pathetic act of friendship which it is a pleasure to record.”

Did you stop and reread that “pathetic”? I did. I left off researching Doyle and began looking into the etymology of the word. Allen’s publisher had used ‘pathetic’ to mean ‘moving’ or ‘stirring the emotions’ in a wholly positive sense. This had been its meaning in English since the 1590s, derived from the French pathétique which itself goes way back to the Greek pathētikos (‘sensitive’ and ‘capable of feeling’) and beyond to pathos (‘suffering’). Beethoven is reckoned to have chosen the nickname of his Piano Sonata No 8 in C Minor, Op 13: Pathétique. To him this word conveyed the romantic and sad mood of his sonata.

Yet by 1937, less than forty years after Doyle’s “pathetic act of friendship” the word’s usual meaning had changed to “so inadequate as to be ridiculous”*. My father-in-law would have approved of one of Merriam-Webster’s current definitions: “deserving pitying scorn”.

An article by economist Tim Harford in the Financial Times on December 17 discussed the difference between “telic” and “atelic” projects. Harford got the terms from Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, a best-selling self-help book (the average life expectancy in the USA is roughly 4000 weeks). Telic projects have an aim; atelic projects have no such goal. “The telic runner works towards the achievement of completing an iconic marathon; the atelic runner enjoys the experience of running...”. Harford goes on to say: “As Burkeman ruefully observes, instead of ‘atelic activity’ we could say ‘hobby’, but that word has ‘come to signify something slightly pathetic’. Our culture tells us that hobbies are for losers.”

Why did a word whose positive meaning in English had changed not at all in some three hundred years come to have such a contemptuous one in less than forty? My guess is that it has something to do with the First World War. Were men in that war so brutalised that words like ‘pathetic’, ‘moving’ and ‘stirring’ were regarded by them as utterly inadequate responses to the horrors they were enduring? Did ‘pathetic’ become a bitterly ironic sneer because it proved to be a word that was “so inadequate as to be ridiculous”?

Perhaps a clue is provided by the emergence of a new word in the early 20th Century: ‘empathy’. Its close cousin ‘sympathy’ had been around much longer (and was used in its adjectival form - ‘sympathetic’ - by at least one war poet – Wilfrid Owen). Originally empathy meant the ability to identify with something you were looking at so that you could appreciate it to the full. You could empathize with a painting of a valley from a mountain top by imagining you were an eagle soaring above that valley. By the Second World War empathy had morphed into the ability to identify how a person was feeling and have those same emotions too. Had ‘empathetic’ partially filled the gap left by the change in the use of ‘pathetic’? Could Allen’s publisher, had he been writing in 1950, have said Doyle had performed “a beautiful and empathetic act”?

‘Empathy’ and ‘sympathy’ are not synonyms. The US author Rebecca O’Donnell explains the difference: “Empathy is walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins. Sympathy is being sorry their feet hurt.”

When I used to run negotiation courses for businesspeople, I would ask them early on to list the attributes required to be an effective negotiator. Few said ‘empathy’. Yet I reckon it is essential when negotiating to have the ability to understand the emotional as well as intellectual reasons why the person on the other side of the table is taking a particular position on each issue. The trouble is that so much of the English-speaking world (or, at least, the business part of it) either doesn’t understand what empathy means or simply doesn’t like the sound of it. Literally, in the latter case. I have had British and US American course participants, almost always male, opine that empathy sounds, well...pathetic. Does that soft syllable ‘path’ connote weakness in these men’s minds? If so, they are putting themselves at a disadvantage.**

My father-in-law died in January. I regret now not responding differently during our bad-tempered tiff over the modern dating game. Why didn’t I see how unnatural it must have seemed to a man born and raised in rural Wales eighty years ago to find a soulmate via a small machine in one’s hand? If only I had been a bit more pathetic.

*I could not find the actual source of this definition in the two reference books I looked at. But the modern-day Oxford English Dictionary’s “miserably inadequate” is close.

** For more on the importance of being empathetic in business and in life, see my first article for Only Connect - Why don't we do what Atticus Finch advises? (



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