Stealing Word Nerd Wednesday!

I am absconding with Annette Lyon’s popular feature, Word Nerd Wednesday! Mwahaha! And to totally misappropriate it, I’m posting on a Friday!

I think you now understand how I write from my villains’ POVs.And speaking of characters, and keeping with our theme this month, I wanted to focus on two specific words that many people use interchangeably: sympathy and empathy. I realized that, while I sense a difference, I can’t really say for certain what it is. So I turned to some dictionaries.

From Merriam-Webster: a “relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other,” “mutual or parallel susceptibility.” Also, the “inclination to think or feel alike.” The American Heritage Dictionary, via, agrees: “A relationship or an affinity between people or things in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other.”

From Merriam-Webster again: the primary definition is “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.” The other meaning is “the action of understanding . . . and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” The American Heritage definitions reverse the order: “Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives” and “The attribution of one’s own feelings to an object.”

What’s the difference?
So let’s apply this to our characters. . . . Sympathy is an affinity between the character and the reader—when something happens to the character, the reader feels it. Or, to cut and paste one of the definitions again, it’s “the [readers’] act or power of sharing the feelings” of our characters.

Empathy, on the other hand, is the reader identifying with and understanding the character’s experiences and feelings, possibly to the level of vicariously experiencing them. Which, oddly enough, sounds very much like the same thing. However, Roget’s Thesaurus (via gives an interesting distinction:

sympathy means the stimulation in a person of feelings that are similar in kind to those that affect another person; empathy means a mental or affective projection into the feelings or state of mind of another person

At the same time, it lists sympathy as a synonym for empathy and vice versa. So what is the difference? Let’s dig deeper: get out your etymology gear.

(Um, guys, what’s with the bee suits and the bug jars? I said etymology, not entomology. . . .)

Sympathy and empathy aren’t just extremely similar concepts; they’re very similar words with similar roots. (This is a shout out to the great state of North Carolina, which required me to learn word roots my senior year of high school.)

  • em– is a Greek prefix that’s found in words like instill, imbue, endow and embed. As you can see from those examples, they all mean “in” in some way—to put in, to spread in, to place in, etc.
  • sym– is a Greek prefix found in words like symphony, symmetry, synesthesia and synecdoche (um . . . don’t worry about the definitions on those two 😉 ). Those examples aren’t the most transparent, but it means “with,” or “together.”
  • pathos is a Greek word meaning feelings—or suffering.

So empathy would be instilling the character’s suffering in the reader, while sympathy would be making the reader suffer with the character. Still sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it?

So, really, what’s the difference?
The bottom line: there really isn’t that big a difference between the definitions of empathy and sympathy. ‘Round these parts, I’ve used “sympathy” to denote the ultimate goal of “reader identification”—inducing the reader to feel what the character feels, and to understand those feelings deeply. “Empathy,” in this paradigm, would be one technique used to instill those feelings.

So happy Word Nerd Wednesday. On Friday. And here, instead of Annette’s blog. (And no, actually, I didn’t ask Annette’s permission. But now I ask her forgiveness. *bats eyelashes* Please? I did it as a favor when you said you were so busy you didn’t post WNW this week. And while this is no Ellis Island mythbusting, I hope that this is an acceptable offering.)

What do you think—is this a distinction without a difference? Or are their nuances in the commonly accepted connotations of “sympathy” and “empathy” that dictionaries fail to capture?

Photo by Steve Woods

5 thoughts on “Stealing Word Nerd Wednesday!”

  1. First off, I think there’s a big difference between sympathy and empathy, and that difference can show in big ways in a work.

    Second, I didn’t get around to posting WNW this week, so hey–you did me a favor. Steal away! 😀

  2. Well, you’re welcome. But don’t make it a habit 😉 .

    There’s a difference in the common ways that we use the words sympathy and empathy, but it seems like that varies—some people use “empathy” to denote what other people use “sympathy” to mean.

    If you’d like to add what the OED has to say (or elaborate on the difference you see), I’d love to hear it!

    1. Absolutely! I would try the link near the top of the sidebar which reads “Subscribe for blog updates.” It’s by the large RSS button. Hard to find, I know. Alternatively, every blog on a standard software generates an RSS feed which any feed reader can find if you cut and paste the blog URL into the “Add Subscription” box on the reader.

      Thanks for the spam!

Comments are closed.