When to use aggravate vs exasperate vs exacerbate?

Recently, I discovered Bad English by Ammon Shea. Shea is the author of Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, a book which details a year he spent reading the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED).

In the chapter “Arguing Semantics” in Bad English, Shea brings up a ghost from my education and editing work, the dispute over aggravate vs. exasperate. In fact, he plays on this “controversy” in the subtitle to the book, A History of Linguistic Aggravation.

The traditional rule is that it is an error to use aggravate when what you really want to use is exasperate. As Garner’s Modern American Usage says, in its strict sense, aggravate means “to make worse; exacerbate” (29). For an example, it gives this sentence: Writing a second apology might just aggravate the problem. The word is frequently used with medical or health conditions; for example, consider these two sentences from merriam-webster.com:

A headache can be aggravated by too much exercise.

The symptoms were aggravated by drinking alcohol.

However, aggravate is commonly used in the sense to annoy or irritate, and it is this usage which upsets what Shea calls the “usage police.

Merriam-webster.com goes on to explain that the word comes “from the Latin verb aggravare, which meant ‘to make heavier,’ that is, ‘to add to the weight of.’” It also had the extended senses ‘to burden’ or ‘to oppress.’” Purists argued that given this etymology, aggravate should NOT be used to mean “to irritate, annoy, rouse to anger.”

Indeed, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage reports that some 50 years ago “schoolmasters were insisting that aggravate could be properly used only in the sense ‘to increase the gravity of, to make more grievous or burdensome’ (applied to crime, grief, illness, misery, terror, etc.),” and using aggravate to mean anger, annoy, or irritate “should be left to the uneducated” (33). Disapproval has continued into the 21st century, as seen in this remark, though less heated, by Philip B. Corbett, author of the After Deadline blog:

“The use of ‘aggravate’ as a synonym for anger or irritate is informal and best avoided; the precise meaning is ‘make worse.’” (New York Times, July 16, 2013, qtd in Bad English 26).

Despite acknowledging that aggravate, meaning “to exasperate, incense, make (someone) angry” has existed since the 1600s, Garner’s agrees, calling it “an ingrained CASUALISM” that “should be avoided in formal writing because it has ‘never gained the approval of stylists’” (29). Yet an American Heritage 1988 survey showed 68 percent of its Usage Panel accepted this usage. Indeed, New Fowler’s asserts that the “two senses now stand side by side in a relatively unthreatening manner” (33).

Shea cleverly sums up the debate: “I could have said that this issue has been irritating them, but the original meaning of irritate was ‘to rouse or provoke a person to action.’ To say that it has been bugging them is certainly no better, as bug has been used to describe the aggravating of people since only the mid-twentieth century. Bug obviously has a long and distinguished history of other meanings before that. Could we say that it has been exasperating them? We could, but the same people who hold that aggravate has a precise meaning of “to make worse” could rightfully point out that the earliest meaning of exasperate, found in 1531, is likewise ‘to make worse.’” (Bad English 27)

As Shea notes, exasperate dates to the 16th century. Merriam-webster.com cites the first known uses in the 16th century, as verb (1534) and as adjective (1541). The word derives from the Latin exasperatus, past participle of exasperare (from ex- + asper rough – and as the dictionary points out, it is related to the word asperity).

As a verb, exasperate means “to cause irritation or annoyance.” Though as merriam-webster.com points out, irritate “implies an often gradual arousing of angry feelings that may range from mere impatience to rage . . . [while] exasperate suggests galling annoyance and the arousing of extreme impatience.” The first four synonyms given for the word are aggravate, annoy, bother, bug – three of which appear in the above quote from Shea.

In defining aggravate above, Garner’s gives the word exacerbate, a verb similarly sounding to exasperate, and sometimes confused with it, but having a different meaning. As merriam-webster.com warns, “Lest you wish to exasperate your readers, you should take care not to confuse exasperate with the similar-sounding exacerbate, another Latin-derived verb that means ‘to make worse,’ as in ‘Their refusal to ask for help only exacerbated the problem.’” The grammarist.com elaborates: “Exacerbate is used when describing a situation and refers to making an already bad situation worse. Exasperate refers to the emotional state of a person.”

Interestingly, a 2014 workers compensation manual links aggravation and exacerbation, stating that these are two terms “used interchangeably to describe a worsening of a medical condition,” even though it distinguishes the (pre-existing) conditions between those that increase in severity and move permanently to a higher level (aggravation) and those that show a temporary increase in symptoms (exacerbation).

FYI – Other sometimes-confused words are enervate and invigorate (and less so innervate). As American Heritage notes, enervate, which means “to weaken, deplete of strength,” “is sometimes mistakenly used to mean the opposite, that is, ‘to invigorate or excite’” (164). This resource speculates that people may be confusing or connecting this word with two others: innervate and energy. Garner’s states that innervate, which means “to supply with energy,” is a comparatively rare word (299). And energy, which has a similar sound, “is completely unrelated to enervate, which goes back ultimately to Latin nervus, ‘sinew’ (from which our word nerve, and later innervate, also derive).” (American Heritage 164-165) Thus as merriam-webster.com elaborates, enervate means “lacking physical, mental, or moral vigor,” and even “suggests a gradual physical or moral weakening (as through luxury or indolence) until one is too feeble to make an effort.”

It helps for writers to be aware of these language controversies, the history of word development and the “mistakes” and confusion that arise from similar sounding words, as well as from the rules that schoolmasters and usage police promote. They may find the rules aggravating or exasperating or even enervating, but as we have discussed often in this blog, writers constantly make decisions about word choice and usage in their writing. Writers’ selections are based on many factors – their purpose and audience, their constraints caused by in-house or editorial style manuals, and their own beliefs and attitudes about language, ranging from traditional stickler to rule-breaking non-conformist to playful user of words.

(Material and examples adapted from Bad English; Garner’s Modern American Usage; The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage; merriam-webster.com on aggravate, on exasperate, on enervate; grammarist.com; Workers Comp Manual.)

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