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pathos, pathetic

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pathos, pathetic


  • Pathos: a quality that evokes sadness or pity.
  • Pathetic: omg, like, such a loser.
  • Cf. bathos, bathetic

‘Pathos’ sounds like: PAY-thoss (IPA: ‘peθɑs, or British ‘peθɒs)


"pathos" etymology diagram

“pathos” etymology

A divergence in connotation:

  • In Ancient Greek pathos meant suffering.
  • Modern English pathos and pathetic both come from that root (pathetic comes from a derived form that originally meant sensitive).
  • Both pathos and pathetic long had positive connotations in English: these were the words we used to talk about things that moved our hearts—like when a beautiful movie or song makes you cry.

    pathos small cartoon illustration

    ‘pathos’, old sense of ‘pathetic’

  • Pathos has kept this sad-but-positive sense in English— nowadays when a film critic says your movie is full of pathos, that’s a good review.
  • Pathetic on the other hand, underwent a shift: in the 1930’s it took on negative connotations, so that it now means ‘ridiculous’, or ‘loserish‘—a word you would definitely not want to see in a review of your work!


  • If you are an English speaker learning German or French, watch out: similar-sounding (and historically related) words in other European languages do not have the same negative connotations as English pathetic.
  • For example German pathetisch means lofty. And French pathétique—though the direct historical source of English pathetic—is more like heart-rending (as in various musical pieces of the same name, such as Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata—which is not the “pathetic” sonata!)
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Medical Pathos

  • Medical scientists also borrowed the Greek word pathos— but they use pathos in the decidely unartistic sense of suffering from a disease
    Picture of Canine Distemper Pathology

    Lung Lesions with Canine Distemper Pathology

  • Thus we see the root appearing in many words related to diseases, disorders, and medical treatments, such as pathology, homeopathy, naturopath, osteopathy and psychopathic. Most of these are fairly recent words, created by modern medical scientists combining derivatives of pathos with other Greek words.


  • Aristotle, On Rhetoric
  • “Oxford Dictionary of English.”, Second Edition, Revised, Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson eds.
  • “Oxford English Dictionary.”, Oxford University Press
  • Online Etymology Dictionary

Music in audio is from the cello concerto in B minor by Antonín Dvořák. Musician: John Michel CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Canine Distemper Pathology image is a public domain image from the US Center for Disease Control, via Wikimedia Commons (here)


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