If I am filled with pity for an individual / group (eg - the Syrian situation), I would probably say, "I am filled with pity for the individuals concerned," as opposed to "I am pitiful for the individuals concerned." Surely, logically, both should have the same connotations, but, "I am pitiful ..." turns myself into the subject, does it not? - rendering the latter sentence nonsensical.

Etymologically, surely these had the same meaning originally - am I incorrect in jumping to such conclusions?

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    Etymology or not, the idiomatic meanings have diverged. "I am full of pity" means I feel sorry for someone/something, while "I am pitiful" is self-critical, suggesting that I'm hopeless, useless, worthless etc. – ralph.m Dec 3 '15 at 1:16
  • @ralph.m hence the question - I am interested in when (historically) the divergence occurred, and why / how. – martin Dec 3 '15 at 1:18
  • @ralph.m I find the evolution of language fascinating (I am unfortunately rather ignorant with reagard to laguages other than English, though I have some (sparse) backgroudn in Latin), and my motivation in asking this question is to find out more about when, why and how these changes occurred. – martin Dec 3 '15 at 1:24

Both the words piteous and pitiful held both meanings of A) having pity for others and B) exciting pity from others. The OED records the historical usage as follows:

piteous A 1350-1750  
piteous B 1290-1887 

pitiful A 1491-1875
pitiful B 1450-1871

One might think that the direction of feeling took a reversal at some juncture, but the two senses overlapped for centuries. Today both words join pitiable as synonyms, but the how and why, as is usual, are difficult to trace.

  • Having just looked at OED myself, I think it's pretty clear A is the original (c1350) sense, since their first citation for B usage is a century later. People should have just stuck to piteous, pitiable (cf envious, enviable). Then we wouldn't have the current stupid situation - probably caused by a relatively small number of "less than consistent" speakers during that first century when both words were fairly uncommon. – FumbleFingers Dec 3 '15 at 3:48

You are correct on both counts: "I am pitiful" implies that the subject is you; and yes, originally, pitiful meant "merciful, compassionate" (circa 1300 A. D.). See: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pitiful

  • yes, I am aware I am correct in this assertion, but it is more the history of why / where / when these changes occurred that interests me. Apologies for not being precise / eloquent in my question - suggestions for edits are most welcome:) – martin Dec 3 '15 at 1:28

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