com·​pas·​sion kəm-ˈpa-shən How to pronounce compassion (audio)
: sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it
compassionless adjective

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What is the difference between empathy and compassion?

Compassion and empathy both refer to a caring response to someone else’s distress. While empathy refers to an active sharing in the emotional experience of the other person, compassion adds to that emotional experience a desire to alleviate the person’s distress.

… the story of Nellie Bly, the first female investigative reporter, who not only demanded justice from powerful institutions, but also insisted on dignity and compassion for the most vulnerable citizens. — The Christian Science Monitor, 17 Aug. 2022

Blonde clearly wants us to feel for Norma Jeane, but it dwells on her pain so obsessively … that the movie's empathy feels like another form of exploitation. — Justin Chang, NPR, 23 Sept. 2022

The distinction between compassion and empathy is frequently a topic of exploration.

By empathy I mean feeling the feelings of other people. So if you’re in pain and I feel your pain—I am feeling empathy toward you. If you’re being anxious, I pick up your anxiety. If you’re sad and I pick up your sadness, I’m being empathetic. And that’s different from compassion. Compassion means I give your concern weight, I value it. I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings. … [I]f I feel compassion for you, I’ll be invigorated. I’ll be happy and I’ll try to make your life better. — Paul Bloom, quoted in Vox, 16 Jan. 2019

Compassion is a much older word; it’s been part of the language since the 14th century, and comes ultimately from Latin com- and pati, meaning “to bear, suffer.” Empathy is a 20th century coinage modeled on sympathy as a translation of the German Einfühlung (“feeling-in” or “feeling into”). It was first applied in contexts of philosophy, aesthetics, and psychology and continues to have technical use in those fields.

Choose the Right Synonym for compassion

pity, compassion, commiseration, condolence, sympathy mean the act or capacity for sharing the painful feelings of another.

pity implies tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow for one in misery or distress.

felt pity for the captives

compassion implies pity coupled with an urgent desire to aid or to spare.

treats the homeless with great compassion

commiseration suggests pity expressed outwardly in exclamations, tears, or words of comfort.

murmurs of commiseration filled the loser's headquarters

condolence applies chiefly to formal expression of grief to one who has suffered loss.

expressed their condolences to the widow

sympathy often suggests a tender concern but can also imply a power to enter into another's emotional experience of any sort.

went to my best friend for sympathy
in sympathy with her desire to locate her natural parents

Examples of compassion in a Sentence

Take away all the qualities that make for a genuinely good father—wisdom, compassion, even temper, selflessness—and what you have left is Homer Simpson with his pure, mindless, dogged devotion to his family. Paul A. Cantor, Gilligan Unbound, 2001
… he read every "doctor book" he could reach …  , learning fine secrets and curing us with steams and fruit compotes and dexterous rubs and, above all, with bedside compassion. Gwendolyn Brooks, Booklist, 15 Oct. 1993
The novel addresses at every point in its structural edifice, and lingers over in every fissure, the slave's body and personality: the way it speaks, what passion legal or illicit it is prey to, what pain it can endure, what limits, if any, there are to its suffering, what possibilities there are for forgiveness, compassion, love. Toni Morrison, Playing In The Dark, 1992
I can't write songs about what's wrong with a country that seems to lack compassion for pain and suffering … Bonnie Raitt, quoted in Entertainment Weekly, 23 Aug. 1991
Like the best of the new detectives, V. I. and Kinsey, she is a woman of wit and gravity, compassion and toughness, a heroine worth spending time with. Susan Isaacs, New York Times Book Review, 3 Nov. 1991
He felt compassion for the lost child. She shows compassion to the sick. She had the compassion to offer help when it was needed most. See More
Recent Examples on the Web Leading with the heart: Embracing empathy, compassion, and a genuine concern for the well-being of others as essential qualities of effective leadership, recognizing that true impact stems from a place of authenticity and human connection. The Sorenson Impact Institute, Forbes, 20 Feb. 2024 The unit involved, in fact, mocked the victims and showed a lack of compassion. Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald, 16 Feb. 2024 The same clear-eyed compassion that graced Colm Bairéad’s film elevates this similarly small-scaled but wholly satisfying new adaptation. David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter, 15 Feb. 2024 With the utmost compassion, but that’s true for all of you at every step. Carolyn Hax, Washington Post, 11 Feb. 2024 Resolve the problem with compassion for everyone involved — including yourself., Baltimore Sun, 10 Feb. 2024 Balance, integrity, compassion and love will save the day. Eugenia Last, The Mercury News, 10 Feb. 2024 Yet much remains to be seen how institutions might leverage a sentiment such as empathy and compassion, says Ewa Łętowska, a former judge and Poland’s first ombudsman for human rights after the fall of communism. Lenora Chu, The Christian Science Monitor, 9 Feb. 2024 Your compassion and support have not gone unnoticed. James Hartley, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 7 Feb. 2024 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'compassion.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English, from Anglo-French or Late Latin; Anglo-French, from Late Latin compassion-, compassio, from compati to sympathize, from Latin com- + pati to bear, suffer — more at patient

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of compassion was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near compassion

Cite this Entry

“Compassion.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Mar. 2024.

Kids Definition


com·​pas·​sion kəm-ˈpash-ən How to pronounce compassion (audio)
: sorrow or pity caused by the suffering or misfortune of another : sympathy
compassionately adverb

More from Merriam-Webster on compassion

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