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Recently, at my work, there was an email which talked about the "LGBT sympathizers" community. What the author wanted to say is the "friends of the LGBT community".

Technically speaking it seems that his choice of the word "sympathizer" is not wrong, but (to me) it feels that it has a negative connotation, nowadays.

Any thoughts?

  • Funny, it does seem slightly off, but I'm not sure why yet. You can say Green-party sympathizers quite neutrally. – S Conroy Aug 15 '18 at 16:25
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    Interestingly, since I posted the original question here (4 hours ago) the author of the post (it was a forum post, not an email, after all, so it was possible to edit) changed the phrase to "LGBT allies" which is how it has been used in the past in other avenues within our organization. I am guessing they changed the word because of the funny way it sounds... – mitsos Aug 15 '18 at 19:45
  • In 'communist sympathizer', the word is usually negatively connoted by association. I think though it depends a lot on the context. For a similar example, 'collaborator' often has bad connotations from WWII, but 'your collaborators on the bridge design project' it is perfectly neutral. – Mitch Aug 21 '18 at 13:55
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Here's what I noticed: dictionaries don't mention any negative connotation, but I (as a native speaker) definitely feel that negative connotation is real.

The Oxford English Dictionary only has quotes from over 100 years ago (since this page hasn't been updated), and they're mostly positive. For example:

Our Balkan allies and sympathizers.
The Times literary supplement, March 14, 1918

However, that's not the entire story, since a lot can change in 100 years. In this case, it looks like the word did a 180. I did a search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (which has "20 million words [from] each year 1990-2017") for * sympathizer, which shows which words are used most often right before "sympathizer". The number is how many hits were found in the corpus:

  • a sympathizer: 33
  • nazi sympathizer: 31
  • communist sympathizer: 23
  • the sympathizer: 18 (Note: Not many of these hits are particularly relevant seeing as 9 are from the same fictional book, and 7 more are referencing a book called "The Sympathizer".)
  • confederate sympathizer: 8
  • terrorist sympathizer: 8
  • fascist sympathizer: 5
  • rebel sympathizer: 5
  • southern sympathizer: 5
  • tory sympathizer: 5
  • isis sympathizer: 5
  • guerrilla sympathizer: 4

Without getting too political here, this list heavily supports the idea that "sympathizer" has a negative connotation. It's almost exclusively a list of enemies of the US (from various points in time). "Confederate" and "southern" (which both refer to the same thing) are mostly negative because they're the losing party that supported slavery in the American Civil War (plus several quotes are referring to John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln). However, "a sympathizer" and "rebel sympathizer" have both hits that are obviously negative and hits that aren't so clear cut, (e.g. "a rebel sympathizer at the Libyan Youth Movement" isn't clearly positive, but it's not clearly negative to me either).

  • Thank you for the OED info. Without having any data, I have felt the world has gained the negative sentiment in the post-WWII years as the meaning "Nazi sympathizer" was often alluded to just by using just the word "sympathizer". It seems your quick research supports that – mitsos Aug 15 '18 at 19:50
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No, it doesn't necessarily have negative connotations. Researching this actually surprised me a bit. None of the dictionaries I've checked mention any negative connotations, it's officially a neutral word.

However, consider the following. (This is so weird, the search results keep changing every time I search). If I search for "sympathiser", I get some interesting results. In (Bing) the sixth result was the Wikipedia article for Nazism. When I entered Wikipedia at the top of the article it said "redirected from Nazi sympathiser". Another time when I tried it was the last result on the second page. Another search I did on Bing showed as second result on the first page an article titled "Terrorism sympathiser released despite tough new laws", and the 8th result was "Broadmeadows murder: Islamic State sympathiser sentenced".

When I switched to Google I saw nothing negative on the first page, but on the second page I got articles about terrorist sympathisers. Just to show you I'm not going mad, here's a screenshot of the third Google result page:

enter image description here

You'll see it's chock-full of articles on terrorist sympathisers, some Islamic extremists, some Irish Republican Army, some Nazi.

In one instance on the first page I got communist sympathisers, but of course it's not there anymore because the internet is trying to make me look crazy.

I mentioned the dictionary definitions were neutral, but it's interesting what Oxford Living Dictionaries actually provides as its main example:

sympathizer
noun
A person who agrees with or supports a sentiment, opinion, or ideology.
‘a Nazi sympathizer’
Oxford Living Dictionaries

Pretty interesting, huh?

It's pretty interesting looking through examples in dictionaries, they are quite often negative, and very often political.

I was quite surprised just how many results I got with negative connotations. The uses of "sympathiser" specifically, by that I mean sympathise inflected with the agentive suffix, seems to very often be politically related.

I'm not sure why this is the case. A guess would be it's because there's often no need to call someone out as a disabled persons sympathiser, or abandoned children sympathiser, or animal cruelty sympathiser, because to sympathise with these things is near universal. My guess is that its use would arise as a rhetorical attack on someone for sharing the values of a group considered disreputable.

However strictly speaking the word is neutral, and its use in your email is not strange in the least, I don't think.

  • It occurs to me reading this that if you're a Nazi sympathiser or a Labour party sympathizer for that matter, you sympathise with the party's goals or program (though you might not necessarily give them your vote). Calling someone a homosexual sympathiser or a LGBT sympathiser is kind of reducing the person to a program, which they are not. Perhaps that's why it sounds peculiar (to my ears anyway). She's a gay-rights sympathiser doesn't sound negative to me; perhaps a bit weak when you could say a' gay-rights supporter'. – S Conroy Aug 15 '18 at 16:44
  • @SConroy Exactly! I can't pinpoint why it sounds weird or not. Republican voters sympathise with the Republican party, but you don't call them Republican sympathisers, you call them Republican supporters. – Zebrafish Aug 15 '18 at 16:48
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    Nevertheless, the usage of LGBT sympathizer, despite being technically true, could be misunderstood by some just because of how seemingly inseparable the word sympathizer is to extreme and disagreeable ideologies. As an alternative, well-wishing sympathizer seems much more appropriate, if a bit awkward and strange. – VTH Aug 15 '18 at 16:50
  • @vth It seems to me that for someone to feel it necessary to use sympathiser in the context of LGBT people, they feel that they're a discriminated against minority, and that the sympathisers are one group of people who are a counterpart to another group of people who are less sensitive to their plight. However to call someone who sympathises with the plight of the orphan or the the polar bear probably wouldn't be called a sympathiser. I don't know whether this is because there is less opposition against these matters. People against LGBT rights however are plentiful. – Zebrafish Aug 15 '18 at 17:07

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