23 March 2009

Please don't exacerbate me

Exacerbate. The ugliest word in the English language, yet one of the trendiest. A person can't read the daily paper, a magazine or a book without encountering an author who feels obliged to throw in an "exacerbate." To many authors, it seems to be a de rigueur word, essential to establishing their credentials as a modern writer. What he or she usually means to say is "aggravate," a perfectly good word. How then did this unfortunate situation come about?

The problem seems to lie in the double meaning of "aggravate." The common meaning is "to make worse"; however, it can also mean to "irritate" or "provoke." But if "aggravate" is used in the sense of "provoke," how does one intensify the provocation? The writer is deprived of the usual progression from irritation to aggravation. The answer it seems has been to drag in "exacerbate." Then, for some perverse reason, it has become a trendy replacement for "aggravate" in any sense.

I cringe every time I encounter the word. So please, fellow scribblers, do me a favour. If you mean "to make worse," use the sensible, and quite agreeable, "aggravate" and leave "exacerbate" in your thesaurus. As New yorkers would say (and some people blame them for the problem) spare me the aggravation.

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