Empathic or Empathetic?

By Maeve Maddox

Mary Meehan wonders about the difference between empathic and empathetic:

I was reading a book that discussed the importance of empathy. The author routinely used the adjective “empathic” to describe those possessing the quality of empathy. I have always heard and used the adjective “empathetic”, although upon looking it up it seems both words are valid.

Are there any rules or guidelines regarding the proper use of these two words?

Both empathic and empathetic derive from the noun empathy:

The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation. –OED

Since both forms of the adjective are recognized by the OED and Merriam-Webster, speakers and writers are free to choose the form they prefer.

The older form is empathic (1909). The form empathetic derives from the more familiar pairing of sympathy and sympathetic. The earliest date for the use of empathetic given in the OED is 1932. It could be that scientific writers prefer the older term.

The word empathic makes me think of the word empath.

Neither the OED nor M-W has an entry for empath, but I know from a StarTrek episode that an “empath” is a being who can feel another’s pain–literally.

“The Empath” (1968) is excruciating to watch. Gem, the “empath” of the title, is an alien who combines feelings of empathy with the power to heal. When Kirk and McCoy are injured by torture, she is able to heal them with her touch. However, in healing them, she takes their injuries into herself, suffering horribly in the process.

Because of the StarTrek influence, I do see a difference between empathic and empathetic. I would use empathetic to describe the empathy an ordinary person feels. I’d use empathic to describe the feeling experienced by an empath.

Although neither the OED nor Merriam-Webster has an entry for empath, Answers.com Science Fiction Dictionary has. The word is illustrated with excerpts from the writings of J. T. McIntosh, H. Ellison, A. McCaffrey, M.Z. Bradley, S. Stewart, and M. Rosenblum.

34 Responses to “Empathic or Empathetic?”

  • Angie

    I have to agree: when I use empathic (and just as I typed this, the word appeared as a typo) when referring to the traits of an empath.
    An empath is empathic.
    A person who displays empathy towards someone is empathetic.

    I’m on the New Age spectrum and this is exactly where my mind goes.

    I was at a job interview today and I used empathetic, where the other person used empathic. I thought, “Is she referring to me being an empath?”

    Just my view.

  • Bren Murphy

    I think I’m leaning towards @Bart Grossman – I agree that the use is empathic but in a meeting I was called to account and over-ruled for it to be empathetic.
    Empathic it is.

  • Andy

    Anthon – There is a good deal of merit to a lot of what you say, however I could not help myself but laugh at part of your assertion:

    “…… The use of the term ‘empathy’ to describe an extra-sensory ability is inaccurate, confusing and misleading. It is a a term that is increasingly being abused by people who have no real psychic ability. Empathy is a normal human psychological trait, and it is something all people have to some extent…”

    I disagree with your definition of “empathy” being a psychological trait simply because one is capable of such an emotion. No more than my stating my mental competitiveness allows me to be a fast runner, qualifies as a psychological trait.

    You then state, ” Yet many people go around announcing that they “have empathy”, which makes them somehow special or gifted”.

    Really? Let me ask you this. If Apes could speak, do you think they’d consider us “special” or “gifted”, as compared to them? I’d say probably so. So, on that premise, I’ll suggest to you (seemingly one who would seemingly have a greater appreciation of human evolution), that humanity has evolved tremendously and will continue to do so, albeit at a slower pace than we’d like. You can’t possibly tell me that outside of certain characteristics within humanity that have historically caused our race to be possessive and warring, that people exhibiting “empathy” is becoming much more common? Aside from your argument regarding the distinction between “feeling empathy” and being “an empath”, suggesting that empathy does NOT represent an advanced form of humanity would be the same as you standing on the moon and looking at an ant on Earth, claiming that it isn’t moving. So, it is your final statement that causes me to be conflicted regarding your definition of clairempathy and yet, to me a contradiction regarding a sense of self righteousness. Such a “trait” is not one which I would be accustomed to partially define one define the “gift” that YOU are so special to possess. Your final statement: “… I am an Empath myself, and in my experience an Empath is a person who has vivid ‘clairempathic’ experiences or abilities. This means that the Empath has a direct experience of the other person’s emotions and moods…,
    …(it is a) paranormal phenomenon and it goes beyond empathy or ‘being empathetic”.
    While I will concede that your statement is partially correct, I take issue (and frankly insulted) with your suggestion that such developed capacity, is not to be confused with (or the same) as those others who are JUST empathic. Poor ‘ol Kim (posting from above). She’s just empathic and often feels sad for others, but she doesn’t really FEEL how sad they feel, right? The human capacity to feel for someone else and yet to also “feel” what another may be feeling…., are not mutually exclusive. For one, I just find it odd that a person with such an advanced mental or emotional capacity such as yourself, would seem to come across with such a bold assertion regarding what “they them-self know” and “what everyone else thinks they know”…. and two, that while I do not doubt the evolved capacity which you possess, its almost perplexing to me that you might not have picked up on, or sensed that there are others with an even (I hate to use this term) “higher” level of evolved empathy. This, a capacity to feel “what” the other person feels AND to “feel for” the person experiencing those feelings. By the way, for whatever reason and I do not know why… this seems to apply more commonly to those hurting, feeling pain, or sadness; This, rather than quite the capacity to “sense” or feel excessive feelings of elation and love, but I digress.

    Derek – I think you are largely correct regarding your statement how one to be “empathic”, would truly require an acute focus of attention. However, I respectfully disagree with your disregard of “clairempathy” as muddying the waters. While I disagree with you acceptance of clairempathy, it is with understanding & complete sincerity that I concede that such a word could only exist (beyond that of a adjective of fictional meaning) with the acceptance of our own applied human condition. I do not see how your own empirical thinking could possibly lead you to any other conclusion.

    Now, if you don’t mind indulging a “somewhat” rhetorical question, what if such a whimsical concept of clairempathy were to actually exist as some form of future evolved human characteristic? Understandably unlikely, correct? Fascinating how the evolution of humanity, has occurred at a pace and to a level that our imagination has thus far permitted such to occur. Yet, our seemingly evolved intelligence as a species, ironically seems to make it that much harder to dispel all that we now know & consider to be “fact”. I do see your point, I mean how might such a concept of clairempathy (or E.S.P., etc) realistically exist now… or ever? It is our heightened state of intelligence, that seemingly prevents humanity from possibly accepting the concept of dueling truths or any acceptance of that which cannot be scientifically proven. If one thinks about it, “evolution is really a bitch” (she’s really slow and so unwilling to change, LOL). So, on that note… I’ll accept you’re explanation of “empathy”, and all distinction from the word “clairempathy”. Understand though, that while I accept your explanation, I believe it to be incorrect. You know what though? I feel you, man….. no really, I truly do 😉

  • Bart Grossman

    The word empathetic is an example of the way dictionaries often surrender to popular usage and our unfortunate need to say things in the most complicated way possible to make ourselves sound learned.

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