I say an empath is someone who feels the emotions of others. Where did I get that definition? I cribbed it from the Urban Dictionary. Here's the entry:
Empath: a person who is capable of feeling the emotions of others despite the fact that they themselves are not going through the same situation.
I like the definition above. It exudes empathy. It doesn't imply woo woo. I can explain it without having to apologize. But the Oxford English Dictionary, an actual dictionary, features this definition:
Empath: (chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.
Yup, it's a supernatural thing, originating in science fiction. The first use comes by way of JT McIntosh (1925 - 2008), a once well known but now obscure Scottish novelist, in a story called "The Empath," published in 1956. I've just ordered it from a used book seller; stay tuned for a review. In the meanwhile, here's the sentence where the word appears for the first time in recorded history:
"How exactly does the government use empaths?" Tim shrugged.
"We can tell the level of a man's loyalty just by meeting him. We can walk around a factory and sense that there's going to be a strike."
So empaths are supernatural beings whose sensitivities the government exploits to oppress workers. After "The Empath," other scifi writers adopted the word. Joyce Muskat introduced the archetype to the broader public in 1968 with an episode of Star Trek called "The Empath." In the 80s, the Empath morphed into a mutant in an X-Men comic called "The New Mutants."
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What’s an Empath, Really?
It would take another who knows how many years before the word would mean what I want it to mean. What does it really mean to be an empath? Real people, people like me, have always felt the emotions of others. There was just no word for it until McIntosh came up with one. Now we mortals have appropriated it.
Judith Orloff, who wrote the book on empaths, says an empath is "an emotional sponge. They absorb the emotions, physical symptoms and energies of others into their own bodies." The word has taken on another meaning, too. It's a vaguely hipster way to say, "I'm really sensitive," which may or may not mean you're an HSP, or a Highly Sensitive Person, as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron.
An empath is someone who feels the emotions of others. An empath is a mindreader. An empath is highly sensitive. An empath is a telepathic superwoman on a faraway planet who may defeat the Enterprise.