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Bathos and Pathos

Commonly Confused Words

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The noun bathos refers to an abrupt and often ludicrous transition from the elevated to the ordinary, or to an excessively sentimental demonstration of pathos.

The noun pathos refers to a quality in something experienced or observed that evokes sympathy and a feeling of sorrow.

See also:

Also see Usage Notes, below.

Examples:

  • "The long delayed formal opening to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's New Bodleian building in 1946 was blighted by a moment of bathos when the ceremonial key to its main entrance snapped off in the hands of King George VI." (Richard Tames, A Traveller's History of Oxford, 2003)

  • Like all great movie monsters, Frankenstein's creature generates a sense of pathos.

Usage Notes:

  • "Don't confuse bathos with pathos. Bathos, the Greek word for depth, is a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous. You commit bathos if, for example, you ruin a stately speech by ending it with some tasteless anecdote. The adjective is bathetic, like pathetic, the adjective for pathos, the Greek word for suffering. Bathos is commonly misused as the equivalent of 'sloppy sentimentality.'"
    (John B. Bremner, Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others Who Care About Words. Columbia University Press, 1980)


  • "Pathos is the quality of something, such as speech or music, that evokes a feeling of pity or sorrow: 'The mother told her tale with such pathos that tears came to the eyes of many present.' Bathos is either insincere pathos or a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous': 'The play was rather moving in places, but the episode where the two take a shower together was pure bathos.'"
    (Adrian Room, Dictionary of Confusable Words. Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000)


  • "Pathos occurs when a feeling of pity, compassion or tenderness towards a character or situation is evoked in the reader. Pathos will be usually felt towards a hero, an admired character or a victim. The group victims of a disaster will also frequently engender pathos. The undeserved or early death of a character is a subject for pathos. If we have cried over some incident in a book we have experienced pathos. Think of the death of Ophelia in Hamlet and notice how it is Gertrude's speech about a young girl's death which is the means by which Shakespeare induces pathos. . . .

    "The writer must always strike a careful balance with such scenes if pathos is to be achieved. Even good writers can sometimes go over the top into 'bathos,' when an incident or character that should have aroused compassion veers toward the absurd or ludicrous. Dickens in The Old Curiosity Shop clearly meant the death of Little Nell to arouse pathos and for the most part it did with his contemporary readers. Many modern readers though find the overblown description almost laughable."
    (Colin Bulman, Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing. Polity Press, 2007)

Practice:

(a) The pat ending of Beauty and the Beast disregards the dark undercurrent of genuine _____ and suffering that had made the Beast so endearing.

(b) "True _____ requires a slight interval between the sublime and the ridiculous, but no sooner have our clowns embarked on a project than we see the bucket of whitewash or the banana skin." (Christopher Hitchens, review of Flaubert's unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, 2006)


Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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