pa·thet·ic (pə-thĕtĭk) also pa·thet·i·cal (-ĭ-kəl)
1. Arousing or deserving of sympathetic sadness and compassion: "The old, rather shabby room struck her as extraordinarily pathetic" (John Galsworthy).
2. Arousing or deserving of scornful pity.
[French pathétique, from Late Latin pathēticus, from Greek pathētikos, sensitive, from pathētos, liable to suffer, from pathos, suffering; see kwent(h)- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
Synonyms: pathetic, pitiful, pitiable, piteous, lamentable
These adjectives describe what inspires or deserves pity. Something pathetic elicits sympathetic sadness and compassion: "a most earnest ... entreaty, addressed to you in the most pathetic tones of the voice so dear to you" (Charles Dickens).
Both pitiful and pitiable apply to what is touchingly sad: "She told a most pitiful story" (Samuel Butler). "The emperor had been in a state of pitiable vacillation" (William Hickling Prescott).
Sometimes these three terms connote contemptuous pity, as for what is hopelessly inept or inadequate: a school with pathetic academic standards. "To be guided by second-hand conjecture is pitiful" (Jane Austen). "That cold accretion called the world, which, so terrible in the mass, is so unformidable, even pitiable, in its units" (Thomas Hardy).
Piteous applies to what cries out for pity: "They ... made piteous lamentation to us to save them" (Daniel Defoe).
Lamentable suggests the evocation of pity mixed with sorrow: "Tell thou the lamentable tale of me, / And send the hearers weeping to their beds" (Shakespeare).
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
The American Heritage Dictionary Blog
Check out our blog, updated regularly, for new words and revised definitions, interesting images from the 5th edition, discussions of usage, and more.
American Heritage Dictionary Products
The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
The American Heritage Roget's Thesaurus
Curious George's Dictionary
The American Heritage Children's Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
The American Heritage Student Grammar Dictionary
The American Heritage Desk Dictionary + Thesaurus
The American Heritage Science Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of Business Terms
The American Heritage Student Dictionary
The American Heritage Essential Student Thesaurus