Empathic vs. empathetic

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"James" asked

A few folks at work are engaged in a debate about the difference, or lack thereof, between empathetic and empathic. Could someone from LL elaborate? Our turn to the dictionary only explained that they have the same meaning and usage as a form of speech. Thank you!

Unfortunately, he asked in the form of a comment on a post about Chinese characters. Please don't do this — it's not that hard to find the email address of a suitable someone from LL!

And it's not so hard to get some answers to this sort of thing yourself. One useful resource is Wordnik — and when you look up empathetic, the top link under "Examples" takes you to a post on David Crystal's blog from 2 June 2008, "On tolerating", in which he has a back-and-forth with an anonymous commenter about this very topic:

The commenter asks:

Interesting stuff about tolerance vs. toleration. I was wondering whether you could shed some light on this one:

empathic vs. empathetic

I'd always believed that only the latter (viz. empathetic) was standard, but recently I heard the former and did a check and found that it exists. Are there any subtle differences along the lines of the "tolerance" vs "toleration" distinction? Or are they entirely synonymous?

I don't like the sound of "empathic" and muc prefer "empathetic" (perhaps because of the analogy with "sympathetic" – sympathy(n) – sympathetic(a) – empathy(n) – empathetic(a) ). But I found that even "sympathic" exists! Surely that one is non-standard, and "sympathetic" the better choice?

DC responds:

The OED has empathy from 1904, as a translation. The analogy with sympathy is made very early on in the recorded examples in the OED. And in the same way as sympathic (which did once exist) lost out to sympathetic in the 17th century (except in a technical use in medicine), the same thing is happening here. The general use (insofar as this is a widely used term at all!) is empathetic, therefore, with empathic staying on in restricted settings. There is no difference in meaning.

We can test the theory that empathic has been losing mind-share to empathetic using the Google Ngram Viewer. And the result is a surprise, at least to those of us whose impression of the situation is similar to David Crystal's.  An overall comparison in the Google Books Ngram corpus suggests that empathetic is losing rather than winning:

Before we try to figure out where this apparent effect comes from, and what it means, let's pursue a small side point. The frequency of both words has  been increasing steadily over the past 70 years or so, and it's not clear from the graphical presentation whether the ratio between them has been changing. We can check out this question using the index to the same data provided by Mark Davies at corpus.byu.edu.  If we plug its numbers for the 11 decades from 1900 to 2010 into R, we get

> empathic = c(10, 322, 530, 578, 460, 2712, 8780, 15196, 31304, 49365, 55101)
> empathetic = c(9, 22, 32, 193, 121, 468, 1648, 5271, 9418, 16707, 28691)
> round(empathic/empathetic, digits=1)
[1] 1.1 14.6 16.6 3.0 3.8 5.8 5.3 2.9 3.3 3.0 1.9

This makes it look like empathetic has been gaining a bit of ground in recent years, at least in proportional terms, although the gap in absolute numbers has tended to increase:

> empathic-empathetic
[1]     1   300   498   385   339  2244  7132  9925 21886 32658 26410

But can we really believe the finding that empathic has always been more popular than empathetic, and continues to be 2 or 3 times as frequent?

Let's try some sanity checks. In the COCA corpus, empathetic wins 591 to 425 (ratio 1.39).  In the BNC corpus, empathetic wins 28 to 19 (ratio 1.47).  In the LDC News Text corpus, empathetic wins 1104 to 227 (ratio 4.86). In the New York Times index from 1981 to the present, empathetic wins 1,361 to 303 (ratio 4.49). In the LDC Conversational Speech corpus, empathetic wins 8 to 0.

What gives? Why are the counts for these two words in the Google Books Ngram corpus upside-down relative to the counts in every other kind of source?

Looking at the hits for the two words in Google Books, a hypothesis emerges.  A large fraction of the hits for empathic are in the areas of psychoanalysis and clinical psychology.  While many of the hits for empathetic are in similar areas, a larger fraction seem to be in a wide range of other areas, from education to political science to literary studies.  I don't have the time to check this idea out in quantitative detail, but it makes sense that

  • the shared meaning of these two words has a much higher frequency in writings about psychoanalysis and clinical psychology than in general usage; and
  • in those areas, the probability of using empathic to express this meaning is much higher than it is in general usage;
  • Google Books is highly enriched in works about psychoanalysis and clinical psychology, compared to more general collections like COCA, BNC, the NYT archive, etc.



25 Comments

  1. Brian said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    Is it worth mentioning that "empathic" also has a specialized usage in science fiction (describing someone who has the ability to read other people's feelings, i.e. emotional ESP)? I've never seen "empathetic" used in that context. On second thought, that might be a direct result of its specialized use in psychology….

    [(myl) You're certainly right about this, and it's certainly worth mentioning. Apparently this use of empathic is derived from empath (which, by the way, is missing from the OED!) rather than from empathy -- though you're probably right that empath in turn comes from the use of empathic in psychoanalytic writing.]

  2. Janice Byer said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

    Not only might writers, who aim at audiences larger than the readership for whom "empathic" seems to be standard, prefer "empathetic" for reasons put forward by Mark, but also for reason of its lesser potential to be misread as "emphatic". After all, for some of us, it's but a new-fangled word for "decent", by cracky.

    Forgive my snowcloning, but 50 words for so good a concept is not too many

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

    Re the absence of empath in the OED: it will surely be added in the near future, since the OED's own Science Fiction Citations project has examples back to 1956. The sci-fi sense of empathic is dated to 1959.

  4. JC Dill said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 2:42 am

    "Unfortunately, he asked in the form of a comment on a post about Chinese characters. Pleas don't do this — it's not that hard to find the email address of a suitable someone from LL!"

    It is NOT that easy to figure out how or who to email. (For those who aren't internet/technically savvy, you might as well be completely unavailable by email.) Many of you seem to be completely unavailable by email (trying to locate an email address seems futile) – and for those who are theoretically available via email, often email sent receives no answer.

    If you don't want questions asked via comments in posts, then provide a link to "contact LL" and put up a contact form with CAPTCHA to reduce spam.

    jc – who might just go back to AUE where one can just Post A Question

    [(myl) We don't really aspire to compete with AUE, so don't forget our famous guarantee: Double your money back in case of less than full satisfaction!

    But for anyone who needs to reach me, the first or second hit in a web search for my name is my UPenn home page, on which my email address is prominently displayed. Not that I need any more email.]

  5. möngke said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 5:37 am

    I was initially confused about this post until I realized it was actually empathic rather than emphatic. Given that both are words occurring predominantly in written registers, I'd "agree" with Janice Byer above… my comment is more about firsthand experience of the phenomenon than agreement, really, but still.

  6. Derek McIver said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 7:34 am

    Yes! Brian's right! We cannot forget Deanna Troi and her empathic nature!

  7. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 7:54 am

    @ jc Dill: "It is NOT that easy to figure out how or who to email. (For those who aren't internet/technically savvy, you might as well be completely unavailable by email.) Many of you seem to be completely unavailable by email (trying to locate an email address seems futile) – and for those who are theoretically available via email, often email sent receives no answer."

    What an odd comment… Figuring out who to email does, I suppose, mean looking for someone whose interests seem to match the question but finding an email address doesn't really stretch one's internet skills, surely? If you can find your way to this page then having to do two further clicks isn't asking too much, in this reader's opinion. (Click on a name in the right-hand column, at the top of the new page click on the website link, look for email address.) As for the expectation of an answer, am I alone in considering that a privilege rather than a right?

  8. Adrian said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    I agree with Mark.

    In case anyone's wondering about the mention of "AUE", it's here: http://groups.google.com/group/alt.usage.english/ Still going strong despite the relative demise of Usenet. (It may also be available via your email client.)

  9. languagehat said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    What an odd comment… Figuring out who to email does, I suppose, mean looking for someone whose interests seem to match the question but finding an email address doesn't really stretch one's internet skills, surely?

    It's not an "odd comment" at all. Why should one have to go about "looking for someone whose interests seem to match the question"? What does "stretching one's internet skills" have to do with it — is it a test? If Mark et al. choose not to provide what would seem an obvious service (a "contact us" link), that's their prerogative, but it's an odd choice, and to bash someone for asking about it smacks of sycophancy. (Furthermore, for Mark to chastise someone for leaving a comment in an unrelated thread seems unkind, since it could so easily be avoided by providing a "contact us" link.)

    [(myl) At the moment, I'm 8,359 email messages behind. I'm not sure that the minor hurdle of looking up my home page to get my email address is the right filter to use, but increasing the volume of incoming mail is not a priority for me. I try to respond to all LL-related messages -- about 10-20 a day, generally -- but I can't really afford to devote any more time to that process than I already do.

    And a single point of contact for a group blog is a problem -- either everyone has to read it, and then have a discussion about who will answer or post a response; or someone has to act as administrative assistant, and negotiate response assignments from a central location. Either solution involves a multiplication of messages.]

  10. Jim said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    For what it's worth, Mark, I've contacted you a couple of times in the past and found your responses prompt, thorough and entertaining. I have them saved in my Gmail to this day, in fact, in my Language folder. And I found your e-mail by Googling your name.

  11. Dan T. said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

    Contacting does involve jumping through a few hoops. First you have to figure out which of the group is the most appropriate one to approach with an issue, then you have to try to find a contact point. The most obvious first attempt at this is by clicking on the name in the right column, which I think in the "old days" did go to personal/institutional pages of the individuals, but nowadays just brings up their past posts, which is no help here. So you're forced to try and Google[tm] them, in the hopes of finding a page of theirs with contact info, and these days when somebody does give an email address on a public page, it's usually obfuscated with ever-increasing convolution, so you have to disentangle it before mailing.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

    Actually, when you click on a name in the "List of authors:", you first get a URL at the top of the page that links to a page for that person elsewhere, and then below that are the posts.

    I didn't know that till reading Jeremy Wheeler's comment above and checking it out. Jeremy Wheeler wrongly assumes we know it's that simple, but he's right that it's simple.

    And I agree with the several other people who have said that knowing who to contact about a question is a significant issue.

  13. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    I could respond in detail as to why I found a list of complaints, followed by a demand, followed by a threat "odd". I could go further and explain why I find the choice of the word "service" in this discussion even odder. But I shan't. Instead I shall pop over to Languagehat and click on his "contact us" link. Oh….

  14. Adrian said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

    Mark is not only correct, his comments were spot-on. Some LL readers are seemingly unaware of this but it's in the nature of a blog to be the outlet for the thoughts of its author(s) rather than some sort of free agony-uncle service.

  15. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

    Compare "apathy/apathetic", "antipathy/antipathetic." A fast Google search suggests "apathic" and "antipathic" are chiefly used in medicine (human or veterinary) to characterize sensory disorders.

  16. Carl said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    > And a single point of contact for a group blog is a problem — either everyone has to read it, and then have a discussion about who will answer or post a response; or someone has to act as administrative assistant, and negotiate response assignments from a central location. Either solution involves a multiplication of messages.]

    It's not that tricky now that there's Gmail and IMAP. Everyone just adds one more mail account to their mail programs or one more account on their Google homepages. With IMAP if you mark a message as read or unread once, it gets marked as read everywhere else. Whoever has some time to kill can read through a couple of unopened messages and reply. If any are good add a flag for follow up then move it to a folder/label named for whoever you think should handle it or remark it as unopened.

    That's not to say that it wouldn't consume time, but it doesn't need to consume any more time than it already does. If anything, there could be some decrease in time consumption because today if someone emails a question to 3 people at once, all three have to read it, but with the improved system it would only be read once.

  17. Robin said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

    Does anyone besides me feel that there is a semantic difference between "empathic" and "empathetic"? I have the sense that "empathic" implies a more lasting or innate quality, rather than a temporary one, while "empathetic" easily goes both ways. For example, "She's not a very empathic person in general, but she's being a very empathetic listener right now" seems reasonably okay to me, but the reverse ("She's not a very empathetic person in general, but she's being a very empathic listener right now") seems a bit less okay.

  18. Ethan said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

    @Robin
    Yes, but I suspect it's because of the already-mentioned use of "empath" in SF. So I tend to think of "empathic" as meaning "like an empath", with the implication of a continual state of being. Whereas as "empathetic" can, as you say, be a transient state.

  19. Barbara Partee said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 1:36 am

    To Carl about doing things with GMail and IMAP. (i) I for one would need a more hand-holding explanation of how all that worked. (ii) I fear it would introduce one of the fundamental problems that was experienced in the Communist countries: when things are just for "the group" to do, no one does them.
    When someone sends a Language Log-related question to me (not often), if I can't answer it at all myself I sometimes suggest who I think might. (Just two days ago I punted on a question from that hashmark person and suggested he ask Ben Zimmer (sorry, Ben!).) But at least if it's straight to me I feel a responsibility to try to respond somehow, even if only to say I can't respond. If it's to the group, I feel no sense of obligation and will respond only if it actually strikes a chord.
    Sometimes, with or without an outside query, we toss a question out to our water-cooler conversation and ask "who would like to do a post on this?" — and there isn't always a reply. (Though there often is.)
    I don't think there's any perfect solution when all of us are doing this just for some combination of (a) simple love of these topics and (b) wanting to promote interest in language and linguistics and (c) wanting to combat willful ignorance and irresponsibility in matters linguistic. And when it's all on our quote free time. Mark does most of the heavy lifting, because he really cares about (c) as well as (b); I'm very sporadic because I'm really just (a) and some (b); I'm grateful that Mark and Geoff Pullum work so hard on (c), but I haven't the drive for it. Wish more people did!
    Maybe there could be a "contact us" button that would send things randomly to any one of us but Mark, who gets too much.

  20. Alex said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 7:43 pm

    @Brian
    That was my first thought, too. In sf/fantasy, an empath is a person with the direct ability to experience another's feelings (empathy), while someone who is empathetic is just someone who tries to behave as if they understand and care about another's feelings.

    But I think you and Mark might be wrong about the word coming into sf from psychoanalysis– it seems to be a pretty obvious analogical formation from "telepath." What do I call this character who's a telepath for emotions instead of thoughts? Oh, how about an empath?

  21. Carl said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    Thanks for the response Barbara.

  22. languagehat said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    At the moment, I'm 8,359 email messages behind. I'm not sure that the minor hurdle of looking up my home page to get my email address is the right filter to use, but increasing the volume of incoming mail is not a priority for me. I try to respond to all LL-related messages — about 10-20 a day, generally — but I can't really afford to devote any more time to that process than I already do.

    Completely understood, and urging more unpaid work on you is the last thing I would do; I would, however, suggest that in the circumstances you might go easy on people who leave questions in unrelated threads.

    Instead I shall pop over to Languagehat and click on his "contact us" link. Oh….

    Oh, give me a break. In the right-hand column it says "E-mail: languagehat AT gmail DOT com." Put on your glasses next time.

  23. Eneri Rose said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

    Regarding Robin's and Ethan's comments about a semantic difference between empathic and empathetic, to me empathic implies action, while empathetic denotes just an internal state. I arrive at this because of the use in the psychological sciences of the term empathic listening (also called active listening) which involves actively trying to comprehend and also responding appropriately.

  24. Kem said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

    Run the empathic/empathetic search on Ngram with the filter set to "English Fiction." The bump you see may be the SF usages.

    The English Fiction search still shows the same enthusiasm for empathic. A puzzle.

  25. Steve Tauber said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

    In call centers, a portion of the training usually covers "empathy and empathetic responses"

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