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Since the mid-20th century, the term, “empathy” has gained widespread usage and applause as a cultural virtue. In recent decades, its usage has even surpassed sympathy, which has been in English for centuries longer. While sympathy was once praised as a source of social harmony, it is increasingly associated with attitudes of pity and condensation. Whereas sympathy currently involves feeling for the sufferer, empathy requires putting yourself in the shoes of another. It is clear sympathy has undergone a semantic shift, the linguistic term for when a word takes on additional meanings over time. But how and when did this happen? This research tracks the evolution of the cultural meanings of sympathy throughout the past century by examining its usage in dictionaries, literature, and psychological writings. In particular, it is examined how the connotation of sympathy has shifted from positive to negative.



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How Sympathy Lost its Luster: A Linguistic and Cultural Review