We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out moreJump to Main NavigationJump to Content
  • Text size: A
  • A

compassion, n.

Pronunciation: Hear pronunciation/kəmˈpaʃən/
Forms:  Also Middle English compassioun, compassione, Middle English–1500s compassyon, Middle English compascyon.(Show Less)
Frequency (in current use):  Show frequency band information
Etymology: < French compassion (14th cent. in Littré), < late Latin compassiōn-em (Tertullian, Jerome), noun of action < compati (participial stem compass-) to suffer together with, feel pity, < com- together with + pati to suffer.

1. Suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow-feeling, sympathy. Obsolete.

1340   Ayenbite (1866) 148   Huanne on leme is zik oþer y-wonded. hou moche zorȝe heþ þe herte and grat compassion y-uelþ.
1398   J. Trevisa tr. Bartholomew de Glanville De Proprietatibus Rerum (1495) v. i. 100   The membres ben so sette togyders that..euery hath compassyon of other.
1561   R. Eden in tr. M. Cortés Arte Nauigation Pref. sig. ¶iiv   Such a mutuall compassion of parte to parte..by one common sence existent in them all.
1635   A. Gil Sacred Philos. Holy Script. iv. xxviii. 63   That it was onely by a vegetable or animall soule, which suffered by compassion with the body.

1340—1635(Hide quotations)


 a. The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour. Const. on (of obsolete).The compassion of sense 1   was between equals or fellow-sufferers; this is shown towards a person in distress by one who is free from it, who is, in this respect, his superior.

c1340   R. Rolle Prose Treat. 36   Þou may thynke of synnes and of wrechidnes of thyne euencristene..with pete and of compassione of thaym.
1535   Bible (Coverdale) Joel ii. 12   The Lorde..is..longe sufferynge & of greate compassion.
a1616   W. Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 1 (1623) iv. i. 56   Mou'd with compassion of my Countries wracke.  View more context for this quotation
1632   W. Lithgow Totall Disc. Trav. (1682) ix. 386   In Compassion whereof the worthy Gentleman doubled his Wages.
1676   T. Hobbes tr. Homer Iliads i. 23   You on me compassion may show.
1770   ‘Junius’ Stat Nominis Umbra (1772) II. xxxvi. 56   You have every claim to compassion, that can arise from misery and distress.
1823   R. Southey Hist. Peninsular War I. 352   In compassion to her grief, and in answer to her prayers.
1876   J. B. Mozley Serm. preached Univ. of Oxf. vii. 148   Compassion..gives the person who feels it pleasure even in the very act of ministering to and succouring pain.

c1340—1876(Hide quotations)


b. with plural. Obsolete or archaic.

1526   W. Bonde Pylgrimage of Perfection iii. sig. YYYiiiv   All the compassions & mercyes, that thou shewed to the people.
1611   Bible (King James) Lament. iii. 22   His compassions faile not.  View more context for this quotation
1787   J. Whitaker Mary Queen of Scots Vindicated in H. Campbell Love Lett. Mary Queen of Scots (1824) 263   All the little jealousies of the rival will surely melt away in the compassions of the woman.

1526—1787(Hide quotations)


 c. to have compassion : to have pity, take pity. So †to take compassion (upon, of) .

c1384   Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Douce 369(2)) (1850) Heb. x. 34   For whi and to boundun men ȝe hadden compassioun.
c1385   G. Chaucer Legend Good Women 390 Prol.   And han of pore folk compassioun.
1483   W. Caxton tr. Caton C iv   I haue grete ruthe and compassion on you.
a1593   C. Marlowe Edward II (1594) sig. H4v   Thy hart..Could not but take compassion of my state.
1611   Bible (King James) Exod. ii. 6   She had compassion on him.  View more context for this quotation
a1645   W. Browne tr. M. Le Roy Hist. Polexander (1647) ii. i. 164   I..besought him not so to have compassion of a daughter whom he had made miserable.
1723   B. Mandeville Ess. Charity in Fable Bees (ed. 2) i. 290   Humanity bids us have Compassion with the Sufferings of others.
1841   E. W. Lane tr. Thousand & One Nights I. 104   Have compassion on the mighty whom love hath abased.

c1384—1841(Hide quotations)


3. Sorrowful emotion, sorrow, grief. Obsolete.

a1400  (a1325)    Cursor Mundi (Fairf. 14) l. 23945 (heading) (MED)   Compassioun of our lauedi for þe passioun of hir sone.
1493   Chastysing Goddes Chyldern (de Worde) i. sig. Aij/1   Teres of compascyon, teres of compunccion, teres of loue, & of deuocyon.
1590   E. Spenser Faerie Queene i. iii. sig. C2v   Her hart gan melt in great compassion, And drizling teares did shed for pure affection.

a1400—1590(Hide quotations)


Draft additions April 2002

  compassion fatigue   n. originally U.S. apathy or indifference towards the suffering of others or to charitable causes acting on their behalf, typically attributed to numbingly frequent appeals for assistance, esp. donations; (hence) a diminishing public response to frequent charitable appeals.

1968   A. W. Farmer in Minutes Comm. World Service (Lutheran World Federation) 64   You have been hearing and perhaps using, as I have, the phrase ‘Compassion Fatigue’. We are just tired out with all the repeated appeals to do good.
1987   Listener 29 Oct. 19/2   What the refugee workers call ‘compassion fatigue’ has set in. Back in the 1970s, when the boat people were on the front pages, the world was eager to help. But now the boat people are old news.
1995   S. Nye Best of Men behaving Badly (2000) 4th Ser. Episode 6. 161/2   Deborah. Anything to help Dorothy? Gary. No, thanks, I'll shoulder the burden of caring for her. Deborah. Oh, well, maybe later, when compassion fatigue sets in.
2000   Big Issue 4 Sept. 25/2   In a culture exhausted by compassion fatigue, shock is now used more cautiously.

1968—2000(Hide quotations)


This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1891; most recently modified version published online December 2022).

In this entry:

In other dictionaries: