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.
“To aggravate has properly only one meaning,” wrote usage maven Henry Watson Fowler in 1926, “to make (an evil) worse or more serious.” Many a 20th-century editorial pedant loudly agreed with Fowler’s assessment — largely, it could be assumed, based on Fowler’s own authoritarian tone and the popularity of his Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Even today, many style gurus, editors, and English teachers insist using aggravate to mean “annoy, irritate” is just plain wrong.
It’s unfortunate, too, considering that Fowler’s approach to usage was chiefly descriptive, democratic, and bottom-up — based on the ways people actually spoke and wrote their language — as opposed to the top-down, prescriptive strictures of the grammarians of the past. Fowler stood up against artificial rules that were not supported by either history or English grammar. For instance, he ridiculed the ban on both the split infinitive and the sentence-ending preposition (both of which were attempts to impose Latin grammar on English).
But in the case of aggravate, he continued an argument not only against a usage that had been common for 300 years, but for a definition in opposition to both its etymology and original meaning.
Aggravate comes from the Latin roots ad- “to” and gravare “weigh down” — from gravis “heavy,” the root of the word gravity. When the word entered English in the early 16th century, it literally meant “to weigh down, to make burdensome.” Fowler’s preferred meaning, “to make a bad thing worse,” didn’t enter the discourse until the 1590s. According to Fowler and the grammarians that preceded him, the word would change this far and no farther, apparently.
But the definition he opposed — “to irritate or annoy” — started to appear in the 1610s, within a single generation of his preferred meaning, perhaps tied up with an older word from the same etymological roots: aggrieve.
Today, some style guides still discourage the use of aggravate to mean “irritate,” though the rationalization is sometimes simply so that the writer or editor may avoid the ire of pedants. For example, in Dreyer’s English — a light-hearted but well-considered guide to style published in 2019 by Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer — we find this:
If you use “aggravate” to mean not “make a bad thing worse” but “piss the living daylights out of,” though it has for centuries been used thus, you will irritate a goodly number of people, so you might well stick, in such cases, with “irritate.” If “irritate” bores or otherwise aggravates you, can you avail yourself of one of its synonyms … and save yourself the aggravation?
Even the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, whose acceptance of language change often lags behind common editorial usage, is coming around. In 2005, 83 percent of the usage panel accepted the use of aggravate to mean “irritate,” up from 68 percent in 1988.
So the admonition against an “annoying” aggravation is slowly but surely falling away. In my opinion, only the most aggravating pedants still insist that the word rightly has only one meaning.
Featured image: ChingChing / Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now