Exasperate vs. Exacerbate

Go ahead and say these words out loud: ex·as·per·ate and ex·ac·er·bate.

They surely look and sound similar but do you know what their differences are?

Here’s the story that triggered this question:

A friend of mine was over the other day and I can’t remember for the life of me what the subject matter was about but luckily that’s not important.  What’s important is that I used the word “exasperate” in my sentence.  Specifically, I said something was “exasperating the situation” as in making it worse.

My friend immediately replied, “No, you mean exacerbate.”

I was confused and slowly repeated my original word, “Exasperate?”

And she firmly asserted again, “Exacerbate.”

We went back and forth like this a couple times and I realized I had never heard of the word “exacerbate” before and I wasn’t even able to say it properly.  She spelled it out for me but of course I didn’t know what the differences were between the two closely sounding words.  She explained to me that people get exasperated (i.e., irritated) and only situations get exacerbated (worsened).

I was very happy she corrected me because I learned something new and I love that!

Later that day, I googled a little bit about this discrepancy because I wanted to see what more the Internet had to reveal.

What sayeth you, Internet?

A contributor in this thread confirms that the two words are NOT synonymous and their misuse is most likely a product of mispronunciation (like supposedly versus supposably).

Next, this blog post from The Grammar Nazi, clarifies the issue further with a nice example: “I am exasperated by the current economic situation in the United States, but things can still become exacerbated.”

And finally, I found this neat wikipedia article that exemplifies hundreds of misused words in the English language.

Well I hope this helped educate at least somebody out there in Internet land because it surely helped me and I’m not afraid to admit it.