Word: exacerbate

Pronunciation: ig-ZA-sər-bayt

Part of Speech: verb

Definition: make (a problem, bad situation, or negative feeling) worse

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


“Exacerbate” isn’t a word I’ve seen or heard a lot in my lifetime. In fact, I didn’t even discover it until I started studying vocabulary words for a standardized test I took as a requirement for university admissions. The first time I read it on the flashcard, I might have guessed that it had a similar definition to the word that it sounds the most like: “exasperate”. Turns out that’s a common mistake, though these two words are not as unalike as common test prep materials might have you believe…

To “exacerbate” something is to take a bad situation and make it worse. For instance, a movie or play with a terrible script can still be exacerbated by poor direction and talentless actors. The word stems from the Latin verb exacerbare (“make worse”), which in turn is made up of the roots ex- (as in inducement of a state) and acerbus (“harsh, bitter”). Interestingly, this verb can also mean “irritate”, placing it in the same lane as the common word with which “exacerbate” is easily confused. Note, however, that “exasperate” has slightly different roots behind it (such as asper, meaning “rough”), so this shouldn’t be mistaken as a green light to use them as synonyms. The noun “exacerbation” may have meant “provocation to anger” in the past, but for the sake of modern comprehension, it’s probably best to just acknowledge the words in their separate current definitions!

So remember, as much as they may seem similar, these are two different words that are intended to have two different meanings. Take care in your choice of verbs; you don’t want to exasperate your readers by exacerbating your flawed writing with mixed-up vocabulary!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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