Words About Feeling and Suffering

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English has adopted a rich store of words about feeling and suffering from the classical languages. The Greek pathos, for example, has come down to us intact to mean, in English, an evocation of pity or compassion, but that’s just for starters.

Pathology (the word literally means “the study of feeling or suffering”) is the branch of medical science concerned with investigating the nature of disease. It also refers to deviation in not only physical and mental health but also, by extension, environmental and social ills.

A class of terms referring to specific physical and mental ailments uses the root -pathy: They include allopathy, the name for the conventional treatment of disease, often with pharmaceuticals that counter or alleviate symptoms, and its complement homeopathy, which refers to treatment by natural substances.

Words like arthropathy (joint disease) and cardiopathy (heart disease) identify ailments of specific organs or body systems, while noun and adjectival forms of the names of the mental disorders psychopathy and sociopathy (referring to behavior marked by antisocial behavior), have transcended the medical milieu to be used loosely in popular culture.

Phytopathology, or plant pathology, meanwhile, is the study of plant diseases. These ailments, and those affecting animals as well, are generally caused by pathogens (there’s that root word again, followed by another common root, which stems from the Greek term meaning “to be born”).

Forms of other -path terms besides psychopath and sociopath are also used outside of the medical realm: Sympathy, the sensitivity to others’ feelings, and empathy, the action of, or the capacity for, vicarious experience of others’ feelings; sympathetic and empathetic are the adjectival forms. Then there’s apathy, meaning “the lack of feeling,” and antipathy, which means “aversion.” Each has a corollary adjectival form, though antipathetic is less commonly used than apathetic.

Speaking of -pathetic, that’s a word in its own right, with several distinct meanings: It can mean “sad,” “laughable,” “inadequate,” or, less often, “able to arouse compassion or contempt.”

Note, too, related terms derived from -pati, the Latin equivalent of -path: Compatible is essentially a synonym of sympathy. Meanwhile, passion (“suffering”) and both forms of patient — the noun referring to someone under medical care or treatment and the adjective for the quality of forbearance — stem from this root.

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2 thoughts on “Words About Feeling and Suffering”

  1. This is a great article; I’m a philosopher (well, PhD student in philosophy) and the importance of the affects is an issue that drives my interests and one that is underacknowledged. It’s nice to see some acknowledgment that pathetic isn’t as straight forward as it seems, given its use as a pejorative; the evocation of pathos isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    Still, I have to leave some mention of the sense in which the Western intellectual tradition has understand passion (commonly referred to as “the passions”) as something that determines us, something to which we are passive. It’s usually been contrasted with action and activity. In the traditional sense, something about which you are passionate (the object of your passion) is something which invokes affective states that determine your behaviour. It’s associated with suffering because it was long thought (see Epicurus or the Stoics), and in some cases still is, that our suffering and trauma is a product of the world acting on and against us, hence the analogy between passion and passivity.

  2. Where there’s “pathos” you’ll often find “bathos.” You’re slouching toward “bathos” if you overwrite your pain and suffering. Even though it contains a bath and is routinely used on soap operas—it’s got nothing to do with crafty clean copy. Unless you’re writing for La Lucci..

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