This one has bugged me for a while. I've always been under the impression that sympathy doesn't have to mean pity. But everyone else tells me I'm dead wrong. So does sympathy always mean pity?
Sympathy and pity have a synonymous convergence, but also diverge in some respects.
In addition to its meaning of pity, sympathy can refer to a special kind of understanding that two or more people share.
See? No pity involved. The word actually comes from the Greek for "with feeling". It means to resonate emotionally with someone else. It can also be an acoustic term. Push down the sostenuto pedal on a piano and make a loud shout, preferably singing. You will hear the piano strings resonate faintly. This is called "sympathetic vibration." That is a direct physical analogue to the emotional resonance I'm talking about.
You are correct. In fact sympathy doesn't mean pity at all. It means a shared pain or close emotional feeling. I feel bad because you feel bad. You can pity someone who doesn't feel bad at all and for varied reasons. For instance, I might pity the fool. Sympathy requires a similar feeling in the person I'm sympathizing with.
No... Tell your friends to look in a dictionary! That's what I tell mine...With a fair bit of grumbling...Which they deserve! :)
Just a sample of the different definitions from http://www.Merriam-Webster.com
Sympathy: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other
versus Pity: sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy
From the definitions, it's obvious that "pity" can't be considered as more than a specific type of sympathy.
"Sympathy" literally means "feeling with" someone, or something, in certain, usually more artistic, contexts. If you feel really bad over a friend's loss, you sympathise, and, in that case, possibly pity them. However, if you get really happy and excited hearing that a friend won the lottery, you're sympathising again, but you obviously don't "pity" them.
I, personally, wouldn't call pity some subset of sympathy. I would say you can pity starving children, even if you don't know any starving child personally and have never been hungry in your life. I would not use sympathy in that context. Still, that's a nitpick if ever there was one. In real life, "feeling bad" can be described as sympathy or pity more or less interchangeably, but only in that one sense.
If you're interested, the etymologies also show that they don't even come from the same root-word or anything:
Sympathy's etymology: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sympathy
And pity's: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pity
Sympathy and pity are different words, so inevitably they will have or acquire some subtle differences in meaning, connotations, and usage. But so far as I'm concerned the differences are so small the choice of one or the other rarely affects any speaker's utterance or hearer's understanding.
The big difference is between both those words and empathy. To be honest it seems to me other answers seem to be redefining sympathy to mean empathy, simply so they can contrast this with pity.
Several acquaintances who spent time in the US military make liberal use of the phrase "sucks to be you", when they hear of some modest difficulty in another persons life.
It gets used in both laughing with you and laughing at you senses, but in the former seems to convey exactly sympathy without pity.
They recognize that you are in for a hard time, have the empathy to comprehend your misfortune, and don't feel the least bit sorry for you because they know that life is like that and everyone gets the short end of the stick sometimes.