empathetic

Standardly, ‘exhibiting or expressing empathy’, but now also, in some contexts, ‘eliciting empathy’. A semantic development now prominent in the U.S. because of (former vice-president, now presidential candidate) Joe Biden, who is famously empathetic in the first sense (he appreciates our feelings) — subject-oriented EXHIBIT — but because of his life history is also empathetic in the second sense (we appreciate his feelings) — object-oriented ELICIT.


EXHIBIT empathetic (sense one), from cartoonist Baloo’s site

The subject-oriented EXHIBIT sense is the only one recognized in dictionaries, as in this definition from NOAD:

adj. empathetic: showing an ability to understand and share the feelings of another: she’s compassionate and empathetic towards her daughter | I have been touched by the empathetic response to my bad luck.

And is easily illustrated from stories about Joe Biden exhibiting empathy, as in a Washington Post opinions column of 4/26/19 with the headline

Biden is empathetic and compassionate. But …

But then we have presidential biographer Jon Meacham, as a commentator on MSNBC on 3/4/20, referring to JB:

He is a genuine and empathetic figure.

meaning that we empathize with him, thanks to Biden’s misfortunes (the family’s “tragic history”), which elicits sympathy for him: the 1972 accidental deaths of his wife and daughter; the 2015 death of his son Beau from brain cancer. This empathizing with him accords with the frequent descriptions of him as likeable.

A contrast to standard empathetic. Standard empathetic has only the EXHIBIT sennse. There are other lexical items with only the ELICIT sense. For example, from NOAD:

Adj outrageous:  1 [a] shockingly bad or excessive: an outrageous act of bribery. [b] wildly exaggerated or improbable: the outrageous claims made by the previous administration. 2 very bold, unusual, and startling: her outrageous leotards and sexy routines. [eliciting outrage, not expressing outrage]

And then, of course, an ambiguity. From NOAD on sympathetic:

Adj sympathetic: 1 [a] feeling, showing, or expressing sympathy: he was sympathetic toward staff with family problems | he spoke in a sympathetic tone. [b] [predicative] showing approval of or favor toward an idea or action: he was sympathetic to evolutionary ideas. 2 [a] (of a person) attracting the liking of others: Audrey develops as a sympathetic character. [b] (of a structure) designed in a sensitive or fitting way: buildings that were sympathetic to their surroundings….

Sense 1 is the EXHIBIT sense, sense 2 the ELICIT sense. Both are now entirely standard.

But of course they have different histories. The subject-oriented EXHIBIT sense is very much older. From OED2:

sense 3.a. Feeling or susceptible of sympathy; sharing or affected by the feelings of another or others; having a fellow-feeling; sympathizing, compassionate. [1st cite a1718]

While the object-oriented ELICIT sense is more recent:

sense 2.b. Tending to elicit sympathy … or to induce a feeling of rapport; also loosely, pleasant, likeable [1st cite 1900]

So empathetic is now reproducing this line of sense development, from older EXHIBIT to innovative ELICIT. The lexicon marches on.

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