Make Your Editor Cry: Aggravate vs. Irritate

Make Your Editor Cry:  Aggravate vs. Irritate

Despite four hundred years of English speakers using aggravate to mean annoy or irritate, there is a shade of difference. If you make something worse, you aggravate the situation. A bedbug will irritate your skin.

To aggravate is to make something go from bad to worse. Yet aggravate was first listed as meaning, “exasperate, annoy” in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues by Randal Cotgrave in 1611 the same year the KJV came out. It’s not exactly the same as irritate.

People who chew with their mouths open often irritate the people within earshot, meaning that they exasperate their neighbors. If those same people then start loudly using profanity and belching, that would aggravate the situation even more. In the news, aggravated often goes with battery, which is worse than simple battery (beating someone up), and carries a tougher punishment:


After the confrontation, John Smith was charged with
several counts of aggravated battery on a police
officer and resisting arrest.
Regardless of pH levels, high-fat meats, dairy products,
caffeine, chocolate, carbonated beverages, fried foods, alcohol
and mints are known to aggravate reflux symptoms.

To irritate is to cause an unsettling reaction, whether it’s of the body or the nerves. You can irritate someone by talking too loudly on your cellphone in public. You can also irritate your skin, causing a rash or redness. Irritate means to annoy someone. If you try to use irritate in the sentences above, it doesn’t really work as well. Irritate also means to inflame a part of the body, and in that sense, aggravate won’t do.


Bedbugs don't spread disease, but they can irritate
Gold chains are also very irritating to the neck and
arms of an infant.

Aggravate means to make something worse, and irritate is to annoy. But if you use aggravate to in place of “annoy,” it’s unlikely anyone will notice except  the most scrupulous reader or your editor.

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