It seems clear that the two words have the same origin, yet pathetic and pathetisch seem to have significantly different meanings (or don't they?).

Pathetic is very negative with synonyms like pitiful, miserable, disgraceful, shameful, despicable, dishonorable etc. Whereas pathetisch is not necessarily negative, as it just means excessively dramatic or emotional. They do however show up as translations of each other, though usually being somewhere a bit further down on the list.

So first of all, what is the common ground that these two seem to have, how different are they in meaning? When and why did the meanings change? Have they once been used synonymously and if so, which meaning came first?

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    dict.cc lists them as translation. Luckily, dict.leo and Pons don't. I consider this an error in dict.cc. This translation wasn't thoroughly checked; I really don't think that there's a single sentence where this is an appropriate translation.
    – Em1
    Aug 6, 2015 at 14:35
  • Yes, it also feels wrong to me. But english wiktionary also lists pathetic as one of the translations of pathetisch Aug 6, 2015 at 14:38
  • I would guess the P. I. Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique", Op. 74, loosely translated as the pathetic symphony, uses the latter meaning of the word. I would say it would be an error to use this word in modern parlance. The tragic symphony would be a better rendition.
    – jrrk
    Aug 6, 2015 at 17:14
  • Has anyone on here heard of the pathetic fallacy?
    – fdb
    Sep 25, 2018 at 23:11

2 Answers 2


The German word still has the original meaning that was borrowed from Greek.

Bedeutung: übertrieben oder aufgesetzt gefühlvoll, leidenschaftlich

Herkunft: über spätlateinisch patheticus → la von altgriechisch παθητικός (pathētikós) → grc „erhaben, feierlich“, einer Ableitung zum Substantiv πάθος (pathos) → grc „Pathos“

The English word originally had the same meaning but it changed.

pathetic: archaic Relating to the emotions.

The contemporary English meaning of "arousing pity" is first recorded in 1737.

So, both words share their origin and meant the same thing many, many years ago. The English one lost its original meaning. I can neither answer when it was declared archaic nor can I say why it had changed. I didn't find anything about that.

  • 3
    Thanks. Interestingly, according to the Google Ngram Viewer, the word pathetisch has not been used in the German language before the 1720s, whereas the english pathetic has been used since the beginning of the 16th century. So that means by the time the english pathetic started to change its meaning further away from its greek origin, the german pathetisch had just begun to become a part of the German vocabulary. Aug 6, 2015 at 15:25
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    @Jascha Goltermann: I think it could also mean that the english corpus has many many more books inside then the german in this period. E.g. try to search for "Mutter" in English and German corpus of Google Ngram Viewer.
    – hellcode
    Aug 6, 2015 at 18:25
  • Part of the Greek family of "pathos" also is also the verb "pathein" which meant as much as "to suffer". This is where the Latin family of "passion" comes from, which is at its core about "suffering". So if you think of "pathetic" as "miserable" you're kind of close to the original core. The German meaning of "pathetisch" leans more toward the Old French reading of the family which was broadened to evoking emotion. A reading that was also present in Greek and Latin and which also ties in with "miserable" as seeing someone suffer evokes emotion.
    – Emanuel
    Aug 6, 2015 at 20:43
  • Would be interesting if "patetisch" already had the over the top notion in German back in the days of the "Romantik". As for English, there all you had to do was strip away the element of genuine pity and you're there. Etymonline suggests that happened as late as 1937. Before it was "arousing pity" without negative connotation. ... meh... I guess I should make that an answer. MAybe tomorrow I will. I'm too lazy for the formatting and linking and stuff.
    – Emanuel
    Aug 6, 2015 at 20:46
  • @JaschaGoltermann... check my two comments for more details on the origin and the meaning shifts.
    – Emanuel
    Aug 6, 2015 at 21:02

My knowledge about the history of these words in German and English is limited, but I am a native speaker of both German and modern Greek and studied ancient Greek until a few years ago.

It is certain, that both of these derive from ancient Greek ΠΑΘΗΤΙΚΟΣ.

Liddell-Scott in the associated lemma claims that the word originally covered the following senses:

A.capable of emotion

B.Sensuous, impassioned,pathetic

C.Grammatically passive
(I omit two very special compounds you can check for yourself).

It is striking, that Liddell groups pathetic with sensuous making me wonder, how old the modern connotation of pathetic as contemptible is.

It is worth noting, that this dictionary documents additional uses beside contemptible, that are closer to the German meaning.

At first sight, it appears, that Greek, German and English restricted to different meanings. In Greek nowadays the - virtually sole - sense is "passive".

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    Interesting indeed. But are pathetic and pathetisch not both adjectives of the word pathos, which comes from the greek πάθος ‎(páthos: “suffering, misfortune”) which in turn comes from πάσχω (páskho: "to suffer, to endure")? Also, the description of pathos seems very close to the meaning of pathetisch but not really close to the meaning of pathetic. Aug 6, 2015 at 14:51
  • @JaschaGoltermann indeed, but as the adjective was already formed in ancient times, I started from there.
    – Ludi
    Aug 6, 2015 at 14:57
  • @JaschaGoltermann, Wiktionary lists as the meaning of πάσχω both "suffer" and "feel". There the modern English and the German meaning come nicely together.
    – A. Donda
    Aug 7, 2015 at 5:59

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