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?
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 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:
 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.