Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
As thousands suffer from COVID-19 and the rest of us hunker down in our homes (or should), we’re all looking for ways to mitigate something: symptoms, anxiety, fear, sadness. Put another way, we’re hoping to “soften up” hard times — and mitigate is the exact right word to use here.
Mitigate — “to make less harsh, severe, or painful” — stems from Latin mitis “soft or gentle” and agere “to do.” From these roots came the Latin verb mitigare, literally “to soften, mellow, or ripen” but used figuratively to mean “to pacify or soothe.”
Mitigate is a transitive verb, which means it requires an object upon which to act. For example, in Aspirin mitigates a headache, “a headache” is the required object. Put another way, a transitive verb like mitigate does not require a preposition to help it along. But sometimes writers want to slip the word against in there: Aspirin mitigates against a headache is a word too long. Just remember that mitigate is synonymous with alleviate and craft accordingly.
But sometimes that extra against is a sign that mitigate is the wrong verb. Scores of lists of commonly confused words point out that mitigate is often confused with militate — “to exert a strong influence or effect” — especially when against is used with it. A correct example: Three nonprofits came together to militate against loosening the standards.
Frankly though, militate can sound rather formal and highfalutin’. Any sentence that uses it could probably be made clearer by substituting a more common and recognizable verb. Which means whenever you see either mitigate against or militate against, you should consider a little editing.
One final usage tip: If something can be mitigated, it is mitigable, not mitigatable.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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