What is bathos?

Word count: 258 words

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: bathos.

The first time I encountered the word bathos, while in university, I thought it was at typo for pathos. Pathetic, eh?

What the word really means of course, is:

1. a sudden ludicrous descent from exalted to ordinary matters or style in speech or writing

2. insincere or excessive pathos

Soap operas (such as Grey’s Anatomy) might be considered bathetic when the writers try hard to make their viewers cry — loading on so much misery (remember the plane crash episode?) — that instead of seeming sad, the story appears contrived or silly.

I most recently encountered the word in the luminous little book An Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy. Here is the sentence in which it appeared:

As with most of my father’s gestures, that voyage was well meant, but later, when things were not going quite as well, it was referred to with scorn, and even later, after his early death, it seemed an act filled with literary bathos, and pointedly sad.

This inspired me to check the etymology of the word, which I suspected was Greek. It is! Introduced by Alexander Pope, the word dates back to 1727, and comes  from the Greek bathos, meaning “depth.” Don’t confuse this noun with garden-variety pathos. The meaning is quite different.