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Death had been more pitiful to them than longer life would have been. It had taken the one in the loyalty of love, and the other in the innocence of faith, from a world which for love has no recompense and for faith no fulfilment.

This is from a novel "A Dog of Flanders". I read the translation of this sentence "Death had been more pitiful to them than longer life would have been." and it says it means "The death was better for them than longer life would have been.". But when I looked a word "pitiful" up in dictionaries, it means "sad, pity", so does it mean "The death was worse for them than longer life would have been.", doesn't it? When I read following sentences, I think it can be interpreted either. Could you teach me?

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    In older English it could mean "full of pity"; compare "merciful". The psychology of why a word can switch from describing the person feeling to the thing they're feeling about is probably fascinating. In any case, "Death would have been kinder to them than longer life." – Luke Sawczak Dec 24 '17 at 15:04
  • Thank you for your comment. Does a word "pity" mean "merciful" now? – Yuuichi Tam Dec 24 '17 at 15:13
  • @Yuuchi Tam: The word pity means compassion, mercy not "merciful", which is an adjective that applies to someone who feels pity. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 24 '17 at 17:01
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo Thank you for your comment. Luke Sawczak said it could mean "full of pity" In older English, so I wondered if "pitiful" means "merciful" and "pity" means "mercy" now. – Yuuichi Tam Dec 24 '17 at 17:31
  • Luke said the adjective pitiful could mean "full of pity". In your comment, you ask about the noun pity (not the adjective "pitiful"). – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 24 '17 at 17:35
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Blatantly stealing Luke Sawczak's and Tᴚoɯɐuo's comments to answer the question:

"Pitiful" has changed somewhat in meaning from when the novel was first written. At that time it meant something closer to "merciful" or "compassionate".

See Definition 3 here, marked "archaic". So in this case the writer is saying that death is better for the subject than a long life would be.

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