Pity the Fool

Maybe you’re familiar with 1980’s pop icon Mr. T’s catchphrase “pity the fool,” and think it originated with him.

Not so. Literature—all the way back to the Bible—includes the concept of evoking sympathy for those less fortunate. But as Mr. T’s strutting, arrogant delivery makes clear, pity has a range of connotations.

In the purest sense, pity is a sympathetic sorrow for another’s physical or mental distress or misfortunes.

Add the suffix less and you have the antonym to pity—pitiless—which means “to show no pity.” Dickens had a pitiless person in mind when he created Ebenezer Scrooge, the cruel and merciless boss in A Christmas Carol.

Although pitiable, piteous, and pitiful all imply some shade of deserving pity, there are subtle differences in meaning and usage.

Piteous and pitiable are identical enough in meaning that they could be used interchangeably. However, piteous is considered more archaic or poetic; the preferred modern usage is pitiable.

  • The relief workers found the conditions in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake pitiable beyond belief.

You might expect that if pitiless is lacking in sympathy, pitiful would be full of pity. But in modern usage, pitiful has acquired a negative connotation—one of scorn, smallness, inferiority. It’s more often used to indicate contempt rather than compassion.

  • Bill’s joke was a pitiful attempt at humor.

And Mr. T’s brand of pity was just as insincere and lacking in sympathy.

Rather pathetic, isn’t it, when a word acquires a meaning so different from its intent? Or maybe it’s pitiable.

Search Posts Here

Subscribe to My Blog

Similar Posts


  1. I love these grammar tips, Suzanne. Thank you! I have always used the word pitiful, to mean both full of pity, and as a negative term as well. I was not even aware of pitiable. I suppose that I should be embarrassed to admit that. It is good to know when I am misspeaking though, so I can rectify it. 🙂

    1. I make all kinds of mistakes too. Good thing I wrote this book so I can look them up and check my bad grammar! The new edition just came out with 50+ more entries so I hope you’ll check it out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *