One of our readers recently wrote in with a question about the difference between the words empathic and empathetic. They mentioned that they recently read a book where the adjective empathic was frequently used to describe people who possess empathy. However, they were used to using the word empathetic, and upon looking up both words, they found both were valid. Therefore, they wanted us to help the empathic vs. empathetic dilemma.
So, are there any rules or guidelines that explain when to use empathic rather than empathetic, and vice versa?
Etymology of Empathic and Empathetic
Both words come from the noun empathy, which means “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Both forms of the adjective (empathic and empathetic) are recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster. Therefore, you’re free to choose the form you prefer.
Empathic is the older form of the word, originating in 1909. Meanwhile, empathetic is derived from empathy in the same way that sympathetic is derived from sympathy. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word empathetic was first used in 1932.
The word empathic is reminiscent of the word empath, which has been popularized in the media in recent years. According to Merriam-Webster, an empath is “one who experiences the emotions of others.” You can see an example of an empath in the 1968 movie “The Empath.” The main character, Gem, is an alien who is able to combine healing powers with empathy. When she heals others, she takes on their injuries and suffers horribly.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to empathic vs. empathetic, some people make the distinction that the word empathetic should be used to describe an ordinary person who has empathy for others, while empathic should be used to describe an empath. But since both words are considered grammatically correct, you are free to use either one, depending on which you prefer.
Here are a few more examples of a group of words that often leave us scratching our heads as to which is correct: