Sunday, December 20, 2009

exacerbate vs. exasperate

I've heard something similar to this a few times recently:
His lack of skill really exasperated the problem.
Going into debt can exasperate your financial situation.
To quote a favorite movie: "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means." Compare:
  • exasperate: to excite the anger of : enrage; to cause irritation or annoyance to
  • exacerbate: to make more violent, bitter, or severe
So, in simple English, exacerbate = to make worse, and exasperate = to make angry. I always chuckle when I hear sentences like the ones above, because I conjure up a mental image of a problem becoming furious, or a financial situation throwing a temper tantrum in frustration.

Next time you're about to use an exa- word, take a second to make sure that it's the right one. You just might avoid making your friendly neighborhood word nerd become exasperated by not exacerbating his frustration with society's increasingly loose lexical license.

Note for word nerds: exacerbate and acerbic (=sour or bitter) both stem from the same Latin root word: acerbus (=harsh, bitter), which in turn stems from the Latin acer (=sharp), which is also the root word for the English acid.