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 ©2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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