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Field note—

Empathy etymology: The story of our name

Megan Lane

16 June 2017

empathy /ˈempəTHē/; UK /ˈɛmpəθi/ noun

  • The ability to understand and share the feelings of another (Oxford Dictionary). The power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings — see also identification (Collins Dictionary).

  • Name of a business design company based in Wellington, New Zealand, and Los Angeles, California. Motto: We create better futures, by design.

Word origin: Early 20th Century: translation of German einfühlung (‘feeling into’) from Greek empatheia (em- ‘in’ and pathos ‘feeling’).

Company origin: Co-founded in 2008 by psychologist and business consultant Emma Saunders and industrial designer Matthew Ellingsen. Now in its ninth year, there are now 16 Empathytes in all, with ethnographers, product designers, anthropologists and writers added to the mix.

Usage: Empathy is both our company name and a key tool of the business design trade. Empathy — the company — delves into the experiences of the people our clients interact with. We use empathy to understand what makes people tick, what trips them up, and how their lives can be made better.

Empathy has come a long way since its inception, both the company and the word itself.

The word empathy first appeared in English in 1909, introduced by the psychologist Edward Titchener from the German philosophical concept of einfühlung, meaning our ability to “feel into” nature and works of arts.

Since then, empathy has moved from its philosophical origins into first psychology and more recently the field of business design and customer experience. (Which is where Empathy with a capital E comes in.)

Its increasing popularity can be charted in Google’s intriguing but imperfect word usage tracker Ngrams, which scours books and other written sources. The Ngrams graph for empathy shows infrequent use throughout the first half of the 20th Century — with a few blips upwards in the late 1920s and early 1930s — and a slow but steady climb beginning in the 1960s, and a sharp escalation throughout the first years of the 21st Century.

Although Ngrams’ charts end in 2008 — six years before empathy (lower case e) was named the number one trend in customer experience — it’s not hard to predict its continued rise. Not least at Empathy (capital e).