English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

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?

share|improve this question
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. However, given your username … 😡 – 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. And...what's wrong with my username? – mendota May 16 '12 at 3:38
I was making a joke. Either you’re on the Lake Mendota terrace in Madison, Wisconsin, or you’re using a pejorative/augmentative suffix in Spanish, perhaps for a big old mendicant, or someone who is mentiroso but worse. As I said, it was just a lame pun; don’t worry about it. But I really can’t figure out the sentiment you’re seeking to describe. – tchrist May 16 '12 at 3:42
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.


  • "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.)
share|improve this answer
Interestingly, the definition of the term pitiable actually uses the OP's phrase: "2. Arousing disdainful pity." – JLG May 16 '12 at 5:11
All the same, it's not right to promote the word 'pity' in a negative sense. Let ELU not confer further legitimacy on a distortion of meaning, however popular it may be. – Kris May 16 '12 at 5:56
I had a feeling that pity was covering both sincere and cynical connotations by itself. I was really hoping for a specific word out there somewhere. Thanks for the answer! – mendota May 18 '12 at 18:51

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.

share|improve this answer
It's true, you'll find that pity usually carries disdain with it these days. Maybe we need a word that means sincere pity with all this shifting of meanings. – mendota May 18 '12 at 18:53
@mendota Yes. What a pity! – Kris May 18 '12 at 19:04

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.