Should ‘aggravate’ only be used to mean ‘to make worse’?

We all have friends and acquaintances that will annoy us at times. Sometimes these people manage to perform this feat through pedestrian means, such as by borrowing money or a book and not returning it. Other times it will adopt a more bombastic approach, such as correcting us when we use the word exacerbate means “unpleasant.”


‘Aggravated’ has been used to mean “disturbing” for about 400 years. That doesn’t mean it’s widely accepted.

If you do not benefit from such friends and acquaintances, and do not yet know what is wrong with saying “you exacerbate me,” the objection is that the word should only be used properly to mean “make worse.” This objection began recently, around 1870, and was quickly adopted by many writers.

aggravate, aggravate. 1. Their use in the sense bother, vexatious, uncomfortable, upset, should be left to the uneducated. It is mostly feminine or childish colloquialism, but it does appear in the press from time to time.—HW Fowler, Dictionary using modern English1926

The use of the word “aggravating” to “provocative,” in my childhood, a profanity of kindergarten, has crept into most newspapers and in many books.—John Stuart Mill , A logical system (8th edition), 1900

The meaning of making the condition worse is the only sense in which the verb Aggravate is used properly; it is profanity to use the word in a sense that is offensive, painful, or distressing.—Joseph Fitzgerald, Words and Phrases1901

In a way, it’s curious advice; the feeling of “making worse” of exacerbate is not the oldest word, as the former means “to weigh” and “to exaggerate”. However, the grammatical reproaches of the late 18th and early 19th centuries did not seem to value consistency as a fundamental virtue, and so they stuck with the idea. In the mid-20th century, it was still generally advised against its use, as was the case with Theodore Bernstein, a well-known writer.

“Aggravated” means “increasing or making worse”; it should not be used to mean “annoyed” or “annoyed.”—Theodore Bernstein, See your language1958

The interesting thing about Bernstein’s warning is that he unwittingly shows how complicated semantic change is. Are not annoyed neither stimulate always means “to disturb.” Angry seems to have been used in written English in the 1520s, while simultaneously carrying the meanings of “make worse” and “disturb” (or, “exacerbating” and “aggravating”) . During the 15th and 16th centuries, it was not uncommon to see annoyed used synonymously with exacerbate in the sense of “make worse.”

When all they do is the most disgusting and disgusting in the eyes of God? when all their veiled devotion failed to appease the wrath of God, but was merely a means to aggravate and exasperate their wrath?—Thomas Gataker, Lectures for sure1637

So as soon as your restless mind begins to blame your false quality, which your Enemies tend to aggravate and exasperate, deliberately hasten impending revenge. your…—Richard Brathwaite, Treasury Times1652

….it aggravated his sadness and angered him even more at the time when it was told to him that Croie had been captured by Scanderbeg….—Marin Barleti, History of George Castro (translated by ZI), 1596

And the earliest meaning of stimulate is “to provoke or provoke.” Thomas Elyot, in his 1531 work Boke is named Gouernour wrote “A man will provoke a vice, if he forbids it.” (He meant that this would excite evil, not upset it.)

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So how long? exacerbate used in the sense of “I really wish you would stop doing that”? About 400 years, and we are sure that one day it will be widely accepted. Just kidding. 2015 version of The New York Times Handbook of Style and Usage talk about exacerbate that “Meaning make worse, not angry or irritable.”

In fact, time there is a slight limitation in this regard and most manuals will accept (sometimes grudgingly) the use of exacerbate means “unpleasant.” This meaning has been adopted by authors such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville and hundreds of others.

If you decide to use the word this way and someone informs you that you’re wrong, you can always respond with “don’t bother me anymore”.

Categories: Usage Notes

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