This Quora question motivated this. Do the Etymonline entries below imply that the connotation changed in Old French (and so even before English)? I pose the question also for the equivalent French nouns, because it appears to concern both English and French.

How did 'pity = pitié' evolve to connote negativity? As per the bolded, how did 'piety = piété' affect 'pity = pitié'?

pity (n.)
early 13c., from Old French pite, pitet "pity, mercy, compassion, care, tenderness; pitiful state, wretched condition" (11c., Modern French pitié), from Latin pietatem (nominative pietas) "piety, loyalty, duty" (see piety). ...
English pity and piety were not fully distinguished until 17c.
Transferred sense of "grounds or cause for pity" is from late 14c.

I heed the Etymological Fallacy. But what are some right ways of interpreting th etymology, to make it feel reasonable and intuitive?

  • 6
    Why are you having problems with etymologies? Have you read anything on language change and semantics? I'm getting tired of having the same questions asked again and again.
    – jlawler
    Apr 28, 2015 at 20:26
  • @jlawler I'm having problems with etymologies, because I struggle to see the connection in a word's etymology. Am I just too dull?
    – user5306
    Apr 28, 2015 at 20:29
  • 3
    Try looking at some historical linguistics, or get a copy of Buck. Dictionaries are not going to enlighten you about how language changes. It's not a matter of dull; it's a matter of efficiency. There are a lot of etymologies and we can't deal with them one by one. For one thing, there's no return on the previous answers you've gotten. We haven't got any idea whether it's worthwhile answering you.
    – jlawler
    Apr 28, 2015 at 20:31
  • @jlawler I thank you; I indeed want to improve efficiency. Can you please cite 'Buck'? I tried Googling it but I don't know what you meant. I also asked this apart: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/12231/5306
    – user5306
    Apr 29, 2015 at 19:11
  • Carl Darling Buck, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages Chicago 1949. Available in a folio paperback edition.
    – jlawler
    Apr 29, 2015 at 19:41

1 Answer 1


You might find this entry in the OED on 'pity' {noun} useful:

"Etymology: < Anglo-Norman pité, pittee, peté, peti, Anglo-Norman and Old French pitet, pitee, pitié (Middle French pité , pitié , French pitié ) compassion (c1100), piety (15th cent.; rare) < classical Latin pietās (see piety n.). In branch II. probably after Middle French pieté piety n.

"The sense of Latin pietās ‘piety’ was in post-classical Latin extended so as to include ‘compassion, pity’ (Vetus Latina), and it was in this sense that the word first appears in Old French in its two forms pitié and pieté . Gradually these forms were differentiated, so that pieté , which more closely represented the Latin form, was used in the original Latin sense, while pitié retained the extended sense. In Middle English, both pity n. and piety n. are found first in the sense ‘compassion’, and subsequently in the sense ‘piety’, and the differentiation in sense is not complete until the 17th cent."

  • 1
    Perhaps it will be useful; but the OP seems to believe that etymologies are straightforward procedures like transformations moving words from one language to another, rather than a series of coroners' reports on dead words, descended from deader words, each idiosyncratic and unique in its own ways, each spoken in a different language and culture in a different place and time, by different people. The wonder is that there is any etymology, given those conditions and the small amount of data.
    – jlawler
    Apr 29, 2015 at 16:45
  • @jlawler Thanks for the advice. I do NOT believe that etymologies are straightforward; I discuss this at the lengthy meta.english.stackexchange.com/q/6791/50720.
    – user5306
    Apr 29, 2015 at 19:13
  • Thanks, but would you please clarify what it means for pitié retained the extended sense?
    – user5306
    Jul 12, 2015 at 21:01
  • Would you please respond in your answer, which is easier to read than comments?
    – user5306
    Jul 12, 2015 at 21:01

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