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My question stems from a conversation on sympathy and pity.

My girlfriend and I agreed that sympathy is feeling for someone, but without taking action or desiring to take action. Pity, then, overlaps with sympathy except there's a desire to take action to help the person in need. But pity, can also be more cynical, and it can demean, intentionally or otherwise, the person receiving pity.

So, this is where I'm curious, is there a word that means specifically disdainful or demeaning pity?

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Pity is not the word for whatever you are describing. Pity is supposed to be a good thing. It is never disdainful or demeaning, which is a sick and insincere perversion of genuine pity. Rather, pity is “The disposition to mercy or compassion; clemency, mercy, mildness, tenderness. [..] Tenderness and concern aroused by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another, and prompting a desire for its relief; compassion, sympathy.” I don’t really know a word for whatever kind of thing you are talking about, but it is not pity. – tchrist May 16 '12 at 3:27
    
Yeah, I know I'm not looking for pity. We already found that word. We're looking for a word that specifically means pity from an arrogant or demeaning place. – mendota May 16 '12 at 3:38
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The word you are actually looking for is (drumbeats) pity.

The word pity, of late, has become associated with being condescending. When you take pity on a person, you implicitly regard him as inferior and feckless. The words sympathy and compassion, on the other hand, do not have such negativity attached to them.

References:

  • "Pity has the dynamic that the one to whom it is shown is considered not only in a worse situation than the one who shows pity, but also considered inferior." (Newint)
  • Wikipedia
  • In English, people have started to avoid the word pity, because it has come to have associations of superiority. (See the note in this link.)
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Interestingly, the definition of the term pitiable actually uses the OP's phrase: "2. Arousing disdainful pity." – JLG May 16 '12 at 5:11

You could be looking for a word like contempt in the sense of 'looking-down' at someone (disdain, as you say).

Though this is not the same as 'pity', it is 'pity' itself that has acquired such connotations of disdain of late.

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