Wednesday, March 30, 2016

New Words For Old

I was attending a workshop today on the fashionable notion of empathy which reminded me of a recent slip in the employment of the term I encountered. In Eleanor Catton's wonderful The Luminaries she has one of her characters ruminating over the word in an early chapter. (I forget the precise reference, but the term is definitely in the character's consciousness.) The problem is that the novel is set in 1866, but the word didn't come into the English language until the turn of the century - around 1905. When I noticed the (extremely minor) glitch I was struck by how incredibly difficult it is to maintain an authenticity of style in any kind of historical novel (and generally the style of this novel is a triumph, by the way) and also how so much of the vocabulary that we might think of as foundational to thought has only been adopted relatively recently. Indeed, it was only around the 1970s that 'empathy' became a widely used term.

Of course, it's possible that Catton's character might have had a thought something akin to that rendered in the novel through the use of the term, but I do wonder if anyone in 1865 could have thought the thought so crisply and effortlessly without the term that encapsulates it.

And I wonder whether the word itself as it commonly used is now changing its fundamental meaning. A lot of folk clearly mean something like 'compassionate sympathy' when they use it, which is an admirable quality. But it's not empathy in the 1905 sense.

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